Forget fear and embrace openness

General Motors is demonstrating how communicators -- including the CEO -- must lead in a crisis, writes GE's Deirdre Latour.

Given the lives lost, many understandably believe it took General Motors too long to explain what happened with the company’s product failure and recall. Although there will be more written and said on this story, GM is demonstrating how communicators – including the CEO -- must lead in a crisis. 

Barely two months into her tenure, CEO Mary Barra openly addressed GM’s product issues via an employee video and in an hour-long Q&A with reporters. 

Her team has actively engaged consumers on social media, including providing concrete solutions and not just robotic responses approved by the legal team. Responses on Facebook included things like providing cash allowances and offering loaner cars.  

Communications professionals understand how difficult the path to openness can be. Often, the biggest obstacle is not the media or the public, but internal dynamics and stakeholders. On any given issue, you have to navigate legal, sales, and commercial teams, HR, product managers and finance. Their job is to reduce legal and financial risk for the enterprise, and many times they see that as being at odds with transparency.

All of these teams play a very important role in these discussions, of course. You have to think long-term and around corners – not just feed the beast today. But the more closed we become, the more the outside world believes we are hiding.

This dynamic has gotten more intense since the global financial crisis, when the public lost trust in business, and good people who do great work every day started to believe that a negative cover story or a subpoena was always just around the corner. 

Fear is not pervasive just in times of crisis anymore. We sometimes have a tough time convincing our people to talk about good news! Some executives would rather put their heads down than tell shareholders that the strategy they’ve been working on so hard is delivering results.

It is our job to help them understand that our story is being told with or without us. Our reputations have been democratized by technology. On a typical day, more than 4,000 opinions are expressed about GE online. Some help us learn how our company is perceived. Others deserve a response from a company that prides itself on putting ethics and alignment with social values at the center of everything we do.

We don’t always get it right, but we believe in three main principles to guide us in challenging situations:

  1. Simplicity: I have learned the most about communicating from Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE.  He uses plain, understandable language, authentic to who he is as a person and a leader. Media statements should not sound like dialogue from a science fiction film. Just say it! 
  2. Transparency: Always start with the mindset of wanting to share as much as you can. You can always decide some items are not necessary to communicate, but start from a position of openness and strength. At GE, we call it "telling our story, our way."
  3. Frequency: The old way of thinking is to communicate only when you have to or when you are trying to drive change externally or internally. In today’s fragmented world of disrupted media models and social networks, you have to tell your story as much as possible in creative ways and with engagement from leadership. People need to understand your company’s culture and strategy long before you are in a fox hole. Senior management should be evaluated on external communications results just as they are on financial metrics. 

The team at GM reminds us how challenging telling your story can be and how important it really is.

Deirdre Latour is senior director of external communications at GE. Find her on Twitter at @deirdrelatour.

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