Barra will need to convince the car-buying public the recall scandal is a relic of the old GM if public confidence is to be restored and market share retained.
Talk about risk-reward.
CEO Mary Barra said yesterday she likely will testify before Congress in planned hearings concerning the automaker’s recall mess involving defective ignition switches in vehicles dating back to 2001.
The move to put Barra front and center is a highly calculated one by GM’s PR and management teams, which are betting the newly minted chief executive, just weeks into the job, will be able to withstand congressional grandstanding and charm a watching America.
Barra will be tasked with keeping cool under pressure and quick with answers, no matter how arcane, political or irrelevant the question.
Most importantly, she will need to convince Congress and the car-buying public the recall scandal is a relic of the old GM and that the new GM is ready to do whatever it takes to correct the problem, support victims of the defect-related crashes and ensure something like this never happens again.
The risk is that Barra will come off looking more like former GM CEO Rick Wagoner, who was bloodied and bowed in congressional testimony during the financial bailout hearings of 2008-2009. Or that in becoming the face of the scandal she will forever be linked to the controversial and costly recall campaign. Think formerCEO Jac Nasser and the automaker’s $2 billion-plus Firestone-tire debacle.
It would be a safer play to volunteer another executive lower down the chain of command to become the point man in all this. If things go badly, GM always could hide that person away until the smoke clears. Not so with its CEO.
But Barra appears convinced this is her battle to own. Besides, so far she has played well with the press and industry insiders, and she probably is the best bet to guide the automaker through what may turn out to be a watershed moment that could determine its future.
She’ll need to give an award-winning performance if public perception of GM, already weakened by its past performance and government financial rescue, is to be buoyed and market share retained.
It’s a big PR roll of the dice. If Barra pulls it off, it could be the defining moment of her career and solidify her position atop GM just weeks into her tenure as top executive.
On the other hand, GM’s shiny new CEO could leave the congressional hearing with more than a few bumps and scrapes.
That would be no way to begin a new administration, and it’s something GM management no doubt would rather not think about.