GM comms lead Cervone's golden rule for crises: 'Deal with them head on'

General Motors' Tony Cervone tells PRWeek about holding one of the most scrutinized communications jobs in the business, as well as his golden rule for dealing with a crisis and what's in his driveway.

GM's Tony Cervone
GM's Tony Cervone

In an interview with PRWeek last week, General Motors communications leader Tony Cervone discussed the company’s strategy for winning back the trust of consumers, noting that people affected by the ignition-switch issue through either a fatality in their family or a serious injury would be eligible for compensation.

"Clearly there are a lot of emotions running, and we sympathize and emphathize with that emotion, so we have to handle these things one at a time," he said, noting that the compensation plan revealed by GM on Monday will "begin to answer all of the doubt that’s out there."

Cervone added at the time that the company’s recent recalls are part of its plan to win back customers.

"We need to do these things in a way that is extremely dilligent and with a discipline and rigor that we frankly never had in the history of the company," he explained. "We’ve done the most aggressive evaluation of our safety out of any time in the history of the company that any of us can remember."

In a separate interview late last week, Cervone did a Q&A with PRWeek in which he explained how he handles his day-to-day responsibilities, including his strategy for dealing with a crisis.

PRWeek: What is your first, go-to news source every morning?
Cervone: I don’t have one. I read numerous outlets every single day. Before the day starts, typically, I will have gone through all of the major US dailies. And I will have a report on my computer before the day gets going with a sampling of global coverage, as well.

PRWeek: What is your golden rule for dealing with a crisis?
Cervone: You deal with them head on. They don’t get better over time if you just try to avoid them. My rule is probably the same rule the company has or at least CEO Mary Barra has at this point: deal with this straight on, transparently and honestly.

By honestly, I don’t mean to imply you would mislead anybody externally or anything. But be honest with yourself about what caused the crisis and make sure you take appropriate actions to prevent it from ever happening again.

PRWeek: As the SVP of global communications at GM, what are your top priorities?
Cervone: It is probably premature to get into specific priorities in terms of where we need to go, because, frankly speaking, I have been consumed with the issues of the news we have been trying to manage [about the ignition switch recall]. It hasn’t been a normal transition by any stretch. In general, the way I would like to work with an organization and lead it is to build a culture of excellence. And that needs to be based on general principles.

Everybody says their industry is unique. And this is one I have spent the majority of my career in, so clearly I am not 100% objective about it. But there are unique things about this industry in terms of its scope, broad consumer appeal, and the passion that comes with automobiles. So it is helpful if you have genuine enthusiasm for the communications profession, as well as the industry we are in.

We also need to [have] the best in the world in terms of practices, which requires an external focus. But internally, we need to create a learning environment where people are intellectually curious to stay on top of whatever the evolutions are in the comms business.

If I make those priorities, I need to figure out how we do those things. This will require a combination of refining the skill set we have and unleashing the capabilities of the organization. There is no shortage of talent here, and so we need to capitalize on that. Often times, the desire to manage the environment gets in the way of the ability to unleash and have the full potential out there. So that is what I am going to try and do.

PRWeek: Do your responsibilities differ from those of your predecessor, Selim Bingol?
Cervone: I don’t think so. He handled public policy in the end. But now that is handled by Bob Ferguson, SVP for global Cadillac. 

PRWeek: How do you prioritize and keep track of all the press about GM?
Cevone: The interesting thing about this business, and certainly GM, is the amount of coverage that is generated on a daily basis. So I don’t spend a lot of time prioritizing it. It doesn’t seem like a good ROI.

In terms of keeping track of the press, we have a solid communications infrastructure around the globe. We try to anticipate what kinds of coverage we are going to get, as well as be active in managing the messaging that takes place around the world.

We have leaders in the US, South America, Asia, and China who directly report to me. We talk often by phone, email, or video conference to keep each other informed on these matters.

PRWeek: Do you consider yourself a behind-the-scenes communicator or an out-front spokesman?
Cervone: Whatever the situation requires. I have an extremely capable team that I can lean on for sure, so it is not a one-man-band by any stretch of the imagination. But there are times when the chief spokesperson needs to be the senior-most person on a communications team.

PRWeek: What’s in your driveway?
Cervone: The Cadillac CTS.

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