March 20 (Bloomberg) -- Mary Barra is no Tony Hayward, and that’s a good thing.
The General Motors Co. chief executive officer took a critical step this week in framing herself as a compassionate leader, invoking the fact she’s a mother as she said she was sorry for the lives lost in accidents linked to a defect that spurred the recall of 1.6 million cars. It was in stark contrast to the seemingly unempathetic response by Hayward to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill when he was BP Plc’s CEO and declared “I’d like to have my life back” amid the unfolding crisis.
“She showed a human side, and that’s what you have to do,” said David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision LLC in Atlanta. “People can identify with her. You have to connect to your audience, and she was able to do that.”
Barra’s backstory as a GM lifer who worked her way to the top adds authenticity, and her mentioning that she has children and can relate to a family’s misfortune gives her empathy heft, Johnson said. Now that she’s laid a solid foundation, she needs to shift into action mode or at least into making statements about what she’ll do to right what’s wrong, said Davia Temin, head of the Temin & Co. crisis management firm in New York.
“This is a major corporate disaster,” Temin said. “She’s got to find out what happened and clean up the house of GM. There’s a playbook that’s 100 steps and this is the first one.”
Barra, 52, got the good early marks for calling reporters to the automaker’s Detroit headquarters on March 18 to make her first comments to the media since the recall, promising there would be “no sacred cows” in the company’s investigation into a failure tied to at least 31 accidents and 12 deaths.
In 2010, in the wake of a deep-water well blowout that killed 11 rig workers and spewed crude into the Gulf, Hayward came off as uncaring and more focused on BP’s liabilities than the human and environmental costs, Johnson said. The then-CEO apologized for what he called “a hurtful and thoughtless comment” before he was replaced in October 2010. Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP, declined to comment.
Temin said another contrast to Barra was Target Corp. CEO Gregg Steinhafel after hackers stole millions of customers’ credit-card and debit-card data. The retailer has communicated mostly through press releases and spokespeople since the revelation, she said, and when Congress held a hearing, Chief Financial Officer John Mulligan testified, not Steinhafel.
While Target did reach out to its shoppers, offering them a free year of credit monitoring and identity theft protection, Temin said Steinhafel didn’t do enough to make himself the caring public face of a company in crisis.
“Steinhafel has hardly been empathetic,” Temin said.
Molly Snyder, a spokeswoman for Target, said in an e-mail that Steinhafel “has been front and center leading the Target team with the singular focus of communicating to our guests in a timely, accurate and transparent way.”
An engineer by training who’s worked for GM for more than 30 years, Barra told the reporters she first learned about an analysis of stalling cars in December, weeks before she become CEO. She said her various jobs wouldn’t have brought her into contact with the vehicles as they were being designed. “When you think of the specific work that was going on” to engineer them, she said, “that wasn’t something that I would have been exposed to.”
The company “took too long” to respond to reports that ignition switches on Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars could slip out of position and cut off power, she said, extending “our deep condolences for everyone’s losses.” In a video to employees made public March 17, she said that “as a mom with a family of my own, this really hits home for me.”
At GM, Barra is “being guided by the first principle of crisis management, which is to do what’s best for our customers’ safety and peace of mind,” Greg Martin, a spokesman for the automaker, said in an e-mail.
While trying to humanize herself as she expresses sorrow is smart, Barra can’t overplay that hand, Temin said.
“Everybody has a backstory and that is hers, and it can help her to seem more approachable,” Temin said. “But that is a small part of the equation.”
Being relatively new to the top job could be a fortunate coincidence, said Jim Haggerty, CEO of the public-relations firm PRCG Haggerty LLC in New York.
“She can legitimately claim she was not the CEO when all this was occurring,” Haggerty said. “She has the advantage of saying ‘I came in and cleaned house.’”
At the same time, Barra is a newcomer only to the top job, not to the company.
“What will tarnish her is if something comes out that she was aware of,” Strategic Vision’s Johnson said. “That’s when her longevity with GM would actually be a hindrance.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Matt Townsend in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org