GM crisis shows communications must be all-encompassing

The Super Bowl of Communications jobs is a mighty role to aspire to, but be careful what you wish for.

The PR profession has been talking for a long time about the importance of having the ear of the CEO and buy-in from the C-suite to carry out effective communications and reputational strategy.

Most successful businesses and organizations now operate like this and have such relationships and structure in place. But what happens when the CEO changes? And where does this leave the head of communications?

I couldn’t help thinking about this when I heard the inevitable news earlier this week that General Motors’ VP of communications Selim Bingol had been let go. Bingol was brought to Detroit and the auto industry in 2010 by former CEO Ed Whitacre, who he had previously worked with in Texas at AT&T.

In our 2012 Newsmaker profile of Bingol he described the GM job as "The Super Bowl of Communications." He also commented that "there is so much pressure on this company and this industry" - and how true that turned out to be.

Whitacre’s reign proved short-lived and Bingol was soon getting to know a new CEO, Dan Akerson, with whom he seemed to develop a similarly good relationship in the four years he worked with him. Akerson openly admitted on taking the job that he wasn’t a "car guy" and maybe this helped his relationship with Bingol, who was also an outsider to a closely knit automotive world where most of the comms heads are seasoned industry veterans with 20 years or more of experience.

Bingol is clearly a smart and savvy comms pro, but he was certainly surprised on joining GM to suddenly encounter the sheer weight of news media that follow the auto industry on a full-time basis. There are suggestions that he never truly broadened his media outreach to embrace these stakeholders, and that this came back to bite him. There are those who cover the auto sector on a day-to-day basis who never felt close to Bingol.

The feeling was also that his preference was to invest most of his efforts into the, undoubtedly important, relationship with the CEO, rather than building relationships with other directors and executives at the operating level. This led to some people feeling left out.

And when 30-year GM veteran Mary Barra took on the CEO role in January many assumed Bingol’s tenure in the lead comms role was also on borrowed time. That assumption ultimately proved to be correct, but not until the company was perceived to have repeatedly botched its response to the embarrassing ignition switch recall that has plagued Barra’s introduction to the top job.

Forget mealy mouthed statements about Bingol leaving to "pursue other interests." Fairly or unfairly, if a CEO switches comms heads so drastically in the middle of a crisis it usually means they aren’t happy with the counsel and/or strategy.

As discussed, Bingol’s preferred M.O. was to operate at the highest echelons of his company, i.e. CEO level, and to work with a small group of contacts in the media who he completely trusted. But this strategy doesn’t necessarily work in the auto industry and certainly backfired in March when he chose to restrict a press briefing with Barra about the recall to 10 print reporters and one broadcaster.

This came back to haunt him a couple of weeks later after Barra’s lackluster performance at a Congressional hearing in DC. The news media, which doesn’t subscribe to the cozy etiquette sometimes observed by specialist reporters whose bread and butter relies on continual access to senior auto execs, and the spurned auto press pack took the opportunity to get their own back.

Bingol’s slightly aggressive reaction to the press after the hearing only served to exacerbate matters, and didn’t convey the feeling of an organization in control and calm under the pressure of events unfolding around it.

By this time the GM CEO and board were already getting frustrated. The feeling was that Barra was underprepared for the hearing and was relying on one message with no fallback option. The company was beginning to look like a victim. The Saturday Night Live skit that made GM look like a national laughing stock may have been the final straw.

Contrary to popular belief, the company was apparently already in a dialogue with auto sector crisis expert Jeff Eller. I understand the well-respected Eller, whose experience dates back to the Firestone crisis in 2000, resigned from his position as co-chair and EVP of Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ global crisis practice prior to the hearings. The option to seek communications and crisis support outside GM’s in-house resource was already well into the planning stages, and Eller is now providing counsel to GM on a consultancy basis.

GM has also been seeking additional help from outside its core group of PR firms, which includes FleishmanHillard and Weber Shandwick, so there may be a few nervous individuals in those agency parishes as this saga continues to unfold.

One thing is for sure: while it is essential for chief communicators to have a close working relationship with their CEOs, it is also just as important for them to cultivate relationships throughout the C-suite and elsewhere in the organizations - especially, in a crisis situation, with their general counsel.

They must also empower their team on an ongoing basis so they will hunker down and pull together in a crisis. And they must build relationships with media across the board that can be tapped into when times get tough and a company is looking for a fair shake – and nothing more than that – in the way it is covered.

Toyota’s Julie Hamp is being touted as a possible replacement for Bingol in some quarters, though she has crisis communications challenges of her own on her agenda at the moment. But she certainly ticks the box as someone who has been immersed in the close-knit auto sector for many years and understands its unique beating heart. Volkswagen's Tony Cervone has also been mentioned in dispatches. They are both GM alum.

The CCO role is much more in the spotlight than it used to be, and can no longer operate behind the curtain – but that’s what the profession has been asking for, so it can hardly complain now. In terms of tenure, the position is probably now as vulnerable as the CMO role has become, and a relentless pace is required, especially in a brutally competitive and truly global industry such as automotive.

If GM decides to go back to the auto sector for its next comms head there is essentially a ready-made shortlist of just five or six individuals who qualify. But despite all the carnage at GM at the moment, you can be sure there will also be many other senior PR pros outside auto lining up to have a stab at "The Super Bowl of Communications."

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