GM CEO Seeks New Spokesman, Replaces Human Resources Head

General Motors Co.’s new Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra moved to put more of her team in place with the automaker revealing the departure of two senior executives, including its top spokesman, as the company faces mounting pressure over its slow recall of 2.59 million vehicles linked to the deaths of at least 13 people.

Barra also pledged on the company’s website to employees that senior leadership would be held accountable for dealing with any safety concerns raised by a new program announced last week to encourage workers to voice concerns openly or anonymously.

“Importantly, we also promise accountability from our senior leadership back to these employees that we will take action or close each issue in a timely fashion,” Barra wrote yesterday.

Selim Bingol, who late in 2012 added public policy to his public-relations duties, is leaving the company to pursue other interests, GM said. He joined the automaker in 2010, coming to the company from Fleishman-Hillard. Before that he had been at AT&T Inc., where he had worked under GM’s then-CEO Ed Whitacre, who was succeeded at the automaker later that year by Dan Akerson. Bingol’s replacement will be named later, GM said.

John Quattrone will become the company’s new senior vice president of global human resources, replacing Melissa Howell, who is leaving the company to pursue other interests, the Detroit-based company said yesterday in a statement on its website.

Barra Ally

“John brings to the job a deep and rich breadth of experience across all levels of the enterprise,” Barra said in the statement. “This background is invaluable as we create lasting change that puts the customer at the center of how we work and how we measure ourselves going forward.”

In Quattrone, Barra gets an executive that she’s worked closely with in the past. He ran human resources for the product-development and purchasing group while she was in charge of the unit before becoming CEO on Jan. 15. He was part of her inner circle as she tried to change the department to make it more nimble and customer-focused.

“It would not be a surprise for her to really want to put her mark on some of these key positions,” David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said in a telephone interview. “HR has become a position that is very strategic because of talent issues in the industry, and communications because of the complexity of the industry.”

Recall Crisis

While Barra is trying to put together her team, she is also struggling to contain the growing recall crisis that’s consumed much of the first three months of her time as CEO. U.S. Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating why GM took so long to recall 2.59 million vehicles with potentially faulty ignition switches.

She has apologized for the deaths and said the company didn’t move fast enough to recall the vehicles. Upcoming for Barra is a review by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who determined compensation for survivors of the 9/11 and the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, on what GM should do for victims of the crashes. The automaker is currently shielded from paying claims for accidents prior to July 2009 as part of its bankruptcy terms.

Bingol could be seen with Barra at U.S. congressional hearings April 1 and 2 in which she faced sharp questions about what GM knew and when. Her performance became the butt of jokes on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which mocked her elusiveness in answering questions. The NBC show opened with a parody of the hearings, with cast member Kate McKinnon as Barra answering questions using dodges like “we’re looking into that” and “that’s part of our investigation.”

Damaging Satire

“That was the old GM. I can only speak to how the new GM would handle it,” McKinnon said gravely, adding, “OK, it’s the new GM starting ... now.” Later she said, “Your honor, may I approach the exit?”

The skit was especially damaging, David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision LLC, a public relations and branding firm, said in an interview last week. “After a sketch like that on Saturday Night Live, after you become the butt of jokes, all of a sudden that changes the narrative,” he said.

GM’s former head of public policy, Bob Ferguson, now head of GM’s Cadillac luxury brand, has been drawn back to Washington to help during the crisis. He, too, was behind Barra as she testified this month.

“We are drawing people from all parts of our business to help guide our response to the current recall,” GM said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Bob is a part of this team and is helping lead our communications and government relations response to the recall. Again, we have no further announcements to make at this time.”

Barra has been asked to return to Congress to discuss the results of an internal GM report on who knew what and when by Jenner & Block LLC Chairman Anton Valukas, the former U.S. prosecutor. He also studied the causes of the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which kicked off the global financial crisis. Barra told the Senate committee on April 2 that it might be 45 to 60 days before the report is complete.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.