Lots of folks love Chevys. They are the hero of countless songs and millions of NASCAR fans. But, the maker of the famous Chevy brand has been suffering a horrendous first quarter, at least from a Public Relations perspective. The bad news began trickling out when a simple malfunction was blamed for the deaths of many GM drivers. Then, worse reports surfaced saying that GM knew about the problem, and failed to act in time to literally save lives.
Initially, the company said the mechanical failure was a terrible tragedy that they had no advanced warning of. Later, they were forced to admit the problems were because of what they are calling a “botched recall.” In the wake of this troubling revelation, GM’s top executives have released a statement saying that the company will “do the right thing” by compensating the victims of the botched recall. From a public relations perspective, this is a good first step, but if they don’t explain exactly how they will go about this soon, any Public Relations progress the company made will quickly recede.
According to subsequent materials, anyone who lost a loved one or was seriously injured in a crash related to the recall will be able to file a claim beginning August 1.This sounds good, but there are louder claims being made that, at this point, are easily enveloping GM’s crisis PR efforts.
First, GM is putting the number of faulty ignition switch related deaths at 13, but critics are claiming this number fails to account for anyone killed as an indirect result of switch-related crashes. GM said it will allow the attorney it has hired to manage the claims to make that distinction.
But, putting a finite – and potentially low – number on the number of deaths is a dangerous misstep for GM. If, and when, the true number of “related” deaths is determined, it will quickly and relentlessly be reported. The media will immediately abandon the “related” modifier, and this will make GM look as if they intentionally misled the public about the impact of this mistake. That may be the furthest thing from the truth, but the intentions won’t matter nearly as much as the perception. The narrative will become, “First GM doesn’t care enough to handle the recall properly, now they are trying to shortchange those impacted.”
Again, that may not be the reality, but as anyone in the PR business can tell you, perception becomes reality. GM would have been better to have never put a hard number on “related” deaths, and instead, focused on expressing condolences, and moving forward to make it right. Then, it would be up to the attorneys and the families to put a number on the tragedy… and up to GM to focus on contrition. Instead, they are now facing a numbers game they cannot help but lose.
Ronn Torossian is a NYC resident – who has never owned a Chevy. He’s author of best-selling PR book “For Immediate Release.”