When GM officials reminisce about better times, they can simply reflect back to Jan. 13.
That’s the day the Chevrolet brand swept the North American Car of the Year and North American Truck/Utility of the Year awards at the Detroit auto show. In that happier time, Mary Barra’s star was still untarnished as she waited to take her place two days later as the first female CEO for General Motors Co.
Then, it seems, the automaker drove off a cliff.
The sudden turn has given some local GM workers whiplash.
GM has issued at least 30 recalls affecting almost 14 million vehicles since the beginning of this year.
Problems have ranged from troublesome to lethal: A defective ignition switch has been linked to at least 13 deaths. Barra has been grilled by Congress about what company officials knew and when they knew it.
Mark Gevaart, president of United Auto Workers Local 2209, has been with GM through more than 30 years of ups and downs. But more recent recruits don’t have that long-term perspective, he said.
A person who was hired in 2007 is going, What?’ Gevaart said last week about the recent recalls. I just rolled my eyes and said, Geez, here we go again.’
Rich LeTourneau, Local 2209’s shop chairman, agreed that some newer workers are reeling.
Oh yeah, they’re real nervous, he said. You gotta remind them sometimes that things happen in this business.
After spending the past several years navigating through bankruptcy reorganization, public backlash after a government bailout and a global financial crisis that largely choked off vehicle demand, GM seemed to have turned a corner.
But the relentless series of recalls has shaken some of the workers at GM’s Allen County truck assembly plant, which employs about 4,000 hourly and salaried workers on three shifts.
The recalls have also presented company officials with a significant public relations problem.
Experts say GM needs to communicate early and often about what the company is doing to address quality issues.
The first recipients of those briefings, they said, should be employees.
Talk the talk
David E. Johnson, who heads an Atlanta PR and branding agency, gives props to Barra for recording a video address to employees early on.
Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision LLC, said workers are often ignored in a crisis. GM should learn from others’ mistakes by creating a communications strategy geared toward employees, he said: Workers need to be assured they’re a valued part of the family.
Mary Barra and senior management also need to show up at the various plants, almost like a town hall, and answer employees’ questions, Johnson said.
If travel isn’t possible, video conferencing sessions could work, he said. If employees don’t feel like they’re being kept in the loop, morale will suffer, he added.
Barry LaBov, a local branding expert, echoed that advice.
At each location, whether it’s a factory or an office, there is a desperate need for communication, he said.
LaBov, president and founder of LaBov & Beyond, said the order of communications is important. Employees shouldn’t be learning about what’s happening inside the company from newspapers or TV news, he said.
Stephanie Jentgen, GM’s local spokeswoman, said GM leaders have provided employees and customers with ongoing, extensive updates on the company’s progress as it addresses the recalls.
If he were in charge of GM, LaBov said, he would list all the mistakes and then list management’s response to each one. That would be followed by an apology and a promise that the company will emerge stronger than before.
Dealerships are also part of the larger family and should be included in GM communications, Johnson said. Dealers and their employees also need to hear that solutions have been found for the defects.
Gevaart, the local union leader, said GM has begun issuing recalls for every imperfection in vehicles.
Which is not a bad way to go to rebuild credibility, he added.
Gevaart and LeTourneau both pointed out that the defective parts are coming to GM from suppliers.
We don’t have a lot of control over the parts that come to us, LeTourneau said.
On the supplier topic, Jentgen deferred to a statement issued May 16.
We are working hard to improve our ability to identify and respond to safety issues, said Jeff Boyer, vice president of global vehicle safety and the individual assigned to integrate safety policies across the company.
Those efforts include the creation of the Global Product Integrity unit to innovate safety oversight. New requirements are being set for GM engineers. And assembly line employees are being encouraged to point out safety concerns.
Gevaart likes empowering front-line workers to speak up when parts don’t look or fit quite right.
The voice of the floor can be a powerful tool to start discussions about the parts and the process, Gevaart said. The option of raising a hand and halting the assembly line has been there for a while, but apparently workers haven’t been doing it often enough, he said.
Every person who touches a part that goes into a GM vehicle has a hand in determining its quality, he said.
LeTourneau, who has been with GM for 31 years, is confident things will turn around. The automaker’s turn under the microscope will end, he said, with the next serious recall. That company is destined to take GM’s place.
There’s always somebody on the chopping block, he said.
Gevaart is also sure the company will survive. But, he said, union leaders don’t necessarily reflect the typical worker view. That is, if there is a typical opinion in a factory with 4,000 individuals.
It’s hard to say that things are good, bad or otherwise, Gevaart said. It depends on the pocket (of employees) you go to.
Jentgen, the spokeswoman, has maintained her deep faith in the company.
Here at Fort Wayne Assembly, our employees continue to build award-winning Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks for our customers, she said in a statement. We are dedicated to providing a safe, world-class truck to every customer.
If opinions vary inside the local factory, the same can be said about the general public’s take on the automaker.
GM officials need to address the problem by overhauling their branding plan, Johnson said. The strategy laid out after the bankruptcy needs to be updated to address the recall fallout, he said.
Johnson routinely counsels clients to take responsibility when things go seriously wrong. That includes when TV networks air interviews with survivors of those who died in GM vehicles with defective parts.
Avoiding responsibility makes it look like a company doesn’t care about anything but profits, Johnson said.
GM will survive this crisis, he said, but it will take a long time.