Yesterday’s Ed Whitacre Webchat Performance

GM's Edward Whitacre, Jr.

On Tuesday GM’s newly appointed CEO Whitacre answered presubmitted, preselected questions on the Web (to make it look spontaneous) and said very little of substance. Comments in the car and business press were uniformly critical, and rightly so. You can read a typical summary here and the transcript here.

But I want to talk about the PR damage this guy is doing to the company. Basically, he’s clamming up when he should be opening up. He backs out of opportunities to explain—not just to the press but to U.S. taxpayers to whom he is beholden—how he plans to revive GM, declaring his priorities and problems, and elaborating in relatively specific detail. That’s what is needed to restore public confidence and—maybe—get people to entertain the idea of buying GM cars again.

This guy is like so many corporate execs (many of whom I’ve coached, as I used to be a media trainer): They are afraid to unbend with the press, afraid of blurting out something “wrong” (because they don’t have a script), and are secretive to the extreme. What they finally do say is generally bland and predictable.

Whitacre did reveal himself at one point. When asked how long his new execs will have to justify their jobs, he wrote “Not long. :-).” That’s typical tough-guy management style. But the public doesn’t really care about your style, it wants to feel confident that you can do your job. This guy has generated a no-confidence vote, at least so far. No, wait a minute, loudmouth analyst Jim Cramer has apparently endorsed him.

The Wall Street Journal was especially critical of the company’s apparent new, low-profile strategy:

During a 60-minute conference call with reporters earlier in the day, two of Mr. Whitacre’s lieutenants—North America Chief Mark Reuss and Sales Chief Susan Docherty—repeatedly declined to elaborate on the company’s plans for such things as market-share growth, profit targets and how they will run the business.

Well, guys, you are now the most public of private companies, and unless you start to come clean with the public (and the press), it won’t matter how great your new vehicles are. Reuss said at one point, “The only way to stabilize this company is to make, sell, build and develop better vehicles than anyone else. The other problems solve themselves.” They do? If you really believe that, Mark, I predict a limited tenure for you at GM. If GM really believes that, its future is very much in doubt.

What do you think of GM’s new public relations strategy? Is it in some way justified?

—jgoods

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