Barra's performance before Congress graded from A to F

General Motors CEO Mary Barra faced questions on Tuesday from the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee and was interrogated by Senators on Wednesday. PRWeek asked crisis communications wranglers to grade Barra's performance thus far.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra faced questions on Tuesday from the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee and was interrogated by Senators on Wednesday about the automaker’s decade-long delay to initiate an ignition switch recall on Chevrolet Cobalts.

Barra is trying "really hard" to communicate that great strides have been made to reduce the bureaucracy within GM, she told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

PRWeek asked crisis communications wranglers to grade Barra’s performance thus far. Their marks are below.

Mike Lawrence, EVP and chief reputation officer, Cone Communications
Grade: A-
Barra is asking the right questions, doing it in public, and making the right commitments. While she waits for answers, she’s made a smart move in bringing in Kenneth Feinberg to consider possible victim-compensation options. She’s showed up at tough congressional hearings, and met with victims’ families. She needs to shift her tone, though. Less CEO, more mom. She is the face of a major corporation in search of a conscience. But it would be good if she showed hers.

Michael Robinson, partner at CLS Strategies
Grade:
C+
In her testimony before Congress, Barra was fighting a two-front war. On the one hand, her emotional understanding of the situation – and compassion – came across well. She met with the families of those who perished, came across as sincere in her apologies, and has enacted a series of initiatives, from conducting an internal investigation to hiring outside counsel to look at potential compensation for the families who lost loved ones.

On the other hand, however, her performance has been wanting. Effective crisis communications demands a presence – a presence of decisive leadership, responsibility, accountability, an overall sense of competence, and mastery of the available information. Granted there are elements of this saga that are as of now unknown, but her tentative answers presented in the most passive of voices did not help her cause.

These hearings offered an opportunity for a level of boldness that did not occur. We did not hear enough about, for example, "a new day at GM" and "those who acted badly will be held accountable."

While optics are important, substance matters most. The takeaway from these hearings is that there are more questions than answers, that a new day has yet to dawn at GM, and that Barra has a long way to go to establish her stamp on the company. And with the drip-drip-drip of ongoing recalls, her time is short to do so.

Tony Telloni, MD at GolinHarris
Grade:
D
Barra should be commended for her willingness to accept responsibility, despite her short stint on the job, and the fact that this issue has been lingering for several years. I do question her preparedness with respect to some of the questions. She appeared to have no real answers for questions that were expected and somewhat obvious. I think families – those that lost someone close to them and those that did not – buy GM cars regardless, and would have appreciated and respected a more emotional and human reaction, rather than a corporate response.

Lynn Casey, chair and CEO of PadillaCRT
Grade: B+
It’s always difficult to comment on how a critical issue was handled without first-hand experience. In the main, the apology was well-worded and toned, and GM’s CEO was sincere – although an eyes-to-the-camera apology would have been preferable to reading the script. What’s really matters is what’s ahead. PR equals "performance recognized," especially at the proving ground of a crisis.   

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