DETROIT: While leaders from Ford, GM, and Chrysler were testifying on Capitol Hill last week, their PR staffs worked to educate key media and consumers about why they were seeking financial help from the government.
Tom Wilkinson, director of news relations at General Motors, told PRWeek, “The debate on [the auto stimulus package]... is very delicate... There's a lot of anger and frustration about the turn the economy has taken [and] the financial industry bailout that doesn't seem to be doing much. A lot of that frustration... is getting mixed up in the discussion around the auto rescue.”
The largest US automaker is trying to communicate that the credit crisis thwarted its efforts to put the company in good stead, such as a historic restructure and a competitive negotiation agreement with the UAW International Union in 2007.
“Our point is GM had done things to turn itself around, and that this was interrupted by plunge in sales and revenues, not caused by anything GM had control over,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said it is being aided by a number of PR firms, as well as its internal staff.
“We're moving very, very fast,” said Wilkinson “We've engaged a full range of PR operations, so I wouldn't want to single any of them out.”
Last week, the company used its Web site, GMFactsAndFiction.com, to post a YouTube video presenting the “ripple effect” that it believes the collapse of GM, Ford, and Chrysler would have on the US economy. GM also recently called on its employees to contact legislators. That message was duplicated on the Web site with links for the public, suppliers, and dealers to contact lawmakers.
Wilkinson noted that with automotive press and general media covering the developing story, GM has worked to provide media outside experts to help explain the industry.
“All we can do is put forward our side... and hope that at the end, cooler heads prevail,” he said.
But the companies are not finding a friendly audience. During the House Financial Services Committee hearing, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) pounced on the Big Three CEOs for taking private jets.
“Couldn't you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?” he asked. “It would have at least sent a message that you do get it.”
The UAW, which was not available for comment, took out an ad in The Hill to appeal to Congress. It also posted talking points and a video on its Web site, www.uaw.org, to “Save Main Street manufacturing.”
Kim Skeltis, MD, SVP, and partner at Detroit's Stratacomm, noted that its client Chrysler is aiming to inspire grassroots activism with its Web site, GrabDemocracyByTheHorns.com.
“[Carmakers are] trying to make it easier to get people to take action,” she said, adding that the companies also seem to be “connecting the dots to Wall Street more clearly, so that consumers can [stand] behind it.”
The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) is also working to help the stimulus package for the Big Three by reaching out to its dealer network and putting a “Main Street face” on the auto industry, said Bailey Wood, director of legislative affairs and communications or NADA, who added that approximately 50 dealers also flew out to meet with members of Congress.
However, some industry advocates, like the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, are not focusing messaging on just the Big Three, but instead broadening the appeal.
“People don't understand the size and the scope of the [auto industry's] footprint, and think it's a ‘Detroit' situation,” said Wade Newton, communications director for the Alliance. “While [the Big Three] doesn't
affect all our members directly, they do all... share supplies.”