Big Three can learn from comms mistakes

The automakers have been given another shot to show how the bailout will help Main Street

Congress' recent order that Detroit's Big Three automakers – GM, Chrysler, and Ford – better explain how government funds would be spent is also an opportunity for the companies to learn from their previous communications mistakes.

Phil Armstrong, COO for the Zeno Group, which represents the Auto Alliance, says despite its efforts, the auto industry failed to put a Main Street face on its bid to explain its industry.

“Unfortunately, [the Big Three] have been... taking conversation away from where it should be,” he says. “All the focus was on management and business operations, and not enough on telling the story in context of what [the industry] means at a local community level.”

David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, which has worked on behalf of auto dealerships, adds, “If they want support [from lawmakers], they should have been more effective in communicating to Middle America.”

Now, the automakers are getting a second chance, despite initially failing to convince Congress, or the public, they deserve federal money to ensure their survival. Lawmakers have ordered the automakers to submit proposals by December 2, detailing how the funds would be spent. Congress will reconsider the plan when it reconvenes the week of December 8.

Michelle Krebs, senior editor of Edmunds' AutoObserver.com and president of the Automotive Press Association in Detroit, says the automakers were facing a difficult challenge, given the “long, bad reputation” of domestic automakers. While they are trying to reach Main Street, she says, “what's stunning to me is the long memories of the people who bought cars from the Big Three many years ago... their reputation still lags,” despite product improvements.

The Big Three also lacked a cohesive message that resonated with the public, in part because they have different levels of financial redress.

“People group the Big Three together a lot, and they are so different,” says Tom Eisbrenner, president of Eisbrenner PR. “They needed to go in with a cohesive set of messages.”

GM chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner also noted that challenge, telling the Detroit Free Press, “We have three companies and three separate business plans... We're tying to get a cogent story, which addresses everyone's concerns without being so long that people don't have time to listen.”

And the PR blunder by the companies' CEOs when they arrived in Washington by private aircraft didn't help either. It made the Big Three appear out of touch, and evoked memories of the AIG retreat controversy.

“The transparency of conversation is not there, and the language of ‘auto bailout'... is all wrong,” Johnson says. “The whole conversation is about rescue, and yet nobody knows what's going on with the money.”

Tony Cervone, VP for global strategy and integration at GM, says he agrees that “a number of things” could have been done better, but there's a “bigger picture... in terms of what appears to be the best communications strategy may not be the best decision for business.”

He concedes that Wagoner's use of the corporate jet for the hearings was a “miss,” but says GM had already been reducing its use of the corporate fleet, a point that “hasn't broken through the media clutter.”

Stuart Schorr, senior manager of sales, quality, dealer, and electronic communications for Chrysler, told PRWeek, in an e-mail, that the company's communications were not just directed at Congress, but also to employees, dealers, and suppliers.

“There was also a substantial effort from our dealers to reach out beyond the Beltway to make it clear that this issue would affect every city and town across the country and not just Detroit,” he says.

Schorr says that message resulted in local media coverage and on ABC News, but “was overlooked by national cable networks.”

Going forward, the companies will need to work harder to ensure certain messages are getting through.

“They've got to be able to build confidence in the American public, and assure them that this is an investment,” Armstrong says. “I don't think they've told that story, as well as what is going to happen if they don't get the money.”

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