Mary Barra, the Woman in the Hot Seat

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[Editor’s note: The following guest post comes to us from the always-brilliant Merrie Spaeth, President of Spaeth Communications and creator of the infamous BIMBO Memo.]

Mary Barra, GM’s new CEO, and the first woman to head a major car company, is scheduled to testify before Congress this week. The topic is ostensibly about why GM did not act faster to address an issue of potentially faulty ignition switches which could cause a car’s electric system to unaccountably disable the air bags. Undoubtedly, the television archivists will be on the job and will retrieve and replay the disastrous appearances of the three main car companies’ CEOs when they all flew to DC in private jets to beg for public money for a bailout. To distinguish herself and place her company in a better light, what should Ms. Barra do? And not do?

First, she should look as if she wants to be there. This doesn’t mean having a huge smile on her face. It means a pleasant face, slightly upturned lips and good eye contact. Even when listening to a tough or hostile question, Ms. Barra has to look confident, as the listener interprets that as telling the truth. (Think Mrs. Dole as Secretary of Transportation. Her facial expression when touring sites of crashes became the gold standard. She looked concerned but not grim.)

Next, avoid excuses. It’s true there are only “a few deaths,” but they become the proxy for everyone at risk because they’re driving a GM car. Don’t point out that federal safety investigators had several chances to act – and didn’t. If asked, “Did the Feds have the chance to intervene?” Acknowledge truthfully, ‘Yes, that’s right,’ and make it a team effort, “but we have always worked collaboratively on safety issues.”

She must remember her headlines. They’ll be rooted in the words “safety,” “customer service,” “trust” and “building for the future.” Remember our golden “good words” and “bad words” guidelines. Don’t get caught the way Apple CEO Tim Cook did last year in the hearings about whether companies, including Apple, unfairly or illegally kept income out of the U.S. to avoid taxes. If you’ll recall, Cook got caught on the question which accused Apple of using “tax gimmicks,” and he fell right into the trap and said, “We don’t use tax gimmicks.” That was the quote in many stories and crowded out his main message.

Ms. Barra needs this lesson above all else. No bad words. On an interview with Fortune TV, she observed that one of her first pieces of advice for GM was “No more crappy cars,” and the interviewer’s follow up was, predictably, “Alright, give me a concrete example of a crappy car or a crappy innovation in a car, or crappy piece of a car.”

Listen. These hearings are mostly about allowing the Members of Congress to get air time, but it is imperative that Ms. Barra does not mirror any confrontational language, facial expression or vocal tones. (In 2008, the President of Shell was skewered by Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who shook her fist and yelled at him. He gave it right back to her, by responding in a manner that was both combative and loud. Very satisfying, until you remember that his audience should have included the American public who were waiting to hear solutions articulated and conveyed in a way they could understand and sympathize with.)

Practice deferring a question you aren’t ready to answer. When the curve ball comes, be (moderately) surprised and ask respectfully for “the opportunity to think about it, check it out, refresh my memory, or get the actual facts….” If you get the nasty follow-up question, “Shouldn’t you know the answer?” give a self-deprecating smile and admit, “I certainly should and by this afternoon, I will!”

Look ahead. Ms. Barra must make a personal promise to do everything she can to see that GM fulfills its potential and responsibilities.  She can’t make blanket promises because screw-ups are inevitable, but she can make it personal. When Martha Stewart was on trial for insider trading, her public and the jurors wanted to hear that she recognized she hadn’t lived up to her own standards for high quality; they didn’t want to hear that the $40,000 in question was “.006 percent of my net worth.”

Ms. Barra also has the advantage of being a woman on her side. Use this fact, but  carefully of course. She’s married and has two children. There’s not much about them in her bio, but she can gently remind her questioners that she cares about GM’s customers and responsibilities to them because she’s a wife and mother – and because she’s worked at GM her whole career and GM is a true “family” to her, and families take care of each other.

Good luck, Mary! You have a real opportunity to bring about change at GM.

Merrie Spaeth, President, Spaeth Communications Inc.

Spaeth founded her company in 1987 fresh out of the Reagan White House, where she served as director of media relations. Merrie’s insights transform how organizations define and implement effective communications, and her client list includes many of the world’s most admired companies. She has written for and been quoted by dozens of media outlets and is also the creator of the funniest bloopers awards around, The BIMBO Memo.

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