GM comms team navigates CEO resignation

DETROIT: General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson's resignation announcement Tuesday afternoon created a monster project for GM's communications team.

DETROIT: General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson's resignation announcement Tuesday afternoon created a monster project for GM's communications team. VP of global communications Chris Preuss said his department had no prior knowledge of the resignation, and had to create a model to release the news to both employees and media in a matter of hours.

“We learned on very short order that this decision had been made by the board of directors,” Preuss said. “We knew this was going to be leaked to the media, so we decided to move quickly. We had about two hours to prepare an internal and external message, and we went first to our employees.”

Preuss, a GM veteran who joined the company in 1998, took over for Steve Harris who retired two months ago.

He said GM executives disseminated information to employees, and provided them an access code to an in-network phone call, where workers could listen to a direct message from company chairman Ed Whitacre, who is now acting as interim CEO. A media blast followed the employee message, and Wednesday morning, GM organized a satellite broadcast where employees could directly address Whitacre and ask questions.

“Unfortunately, we've gotten pretty skilled at being able to turn on a dime the release of information,” Preuss said. “Because of the level of media coverage we've had to handle over the past year, we already had in place the infrastructure to release information quickly and efficiently.”

“We knew that the best way to handle this would be with as much transparency as possible, and being open about any possible reasons why the decision was made,” Preuss said. “The problem there was that there wasn't much information to go on.”

Media speculation has generated questions on whether the resignation was the result of an assessment of GM's progress following its first 100 days since moving out of bankruptcy. While Preuss said his team wouldn't speculate on why the decision was made, he did say the shift was due in part to an evaluation of where GM currently stands.

“The board of directors made an assessment of where we were following the bankruptcy and the restructuring, and they determined they wanted to make a change,” he said. “All involved, including Henderson, agreed it was the best decision.”

Preuss said there is currently no timeline on when a new CEO will be named.

During the height of the financial crisis last year, GM went hat in hand to Washington for funding to ensure its survival. The government obliged but veteran CEO Rick Wagoner was later ousted by the Obama administration, along with some GM directors. Outside talent like Whitacre was later added, but Henderson, a long-time GM staffer and then the automaker's president and COO was appointed CEO. The government owns about 61% of the post-bankruptcy new GM company.

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