Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Big 3 automakers - Isolated at Fawlty Towers

I love private air travel. Nothing speeds my day along like being driven to the airfield, boarding my own jet, and taking off, only to be whisked away to my meeting or dinner upon arrival. First class commercial travel is the next best thing, but it doesn’t really come close – all that wasted time in security and the unwashed masses and whatnot.

Driving cross-country is an entirely different experience. One gas tank at a time, I get to see cities, ‘burbs, hamlets and countryside speed by outside my climate controlled window. Pull over at a rest stop. Slip the card in the slot, wrench off the cap, slam in the nozzle, squeeze off another 20 gallons, hit the head and I’m off for another 400 miles.

America’s Big 3 auto executives had no such decision to make. It never even occurred to them that they might want to drive to beg Congress/the American taxpayers for a few billion dollars to hold them over. Instead, eack CEO took his own corporate jet to the hearings at the U.S. Capitol.
Auto executives, banking executives, Wall Street magnates, and other corner office holders are so isolated from what we call “normal life,” that they are missing in whole or in large part the way the rest of us see things. I can imagine these executives’ shock as the media descended upon the news that private planes were S-O-P. These unusual times prompted no review, no second thought. The outgoing Congress of 2008 set the tone, and every high-leverage, high-risk operator in the Dow-Jones Industrials is bellying up to the taxpayers’ bar.
To blame: the chief communications officers of GM, Ford and Chrysler, and the institutional “let them eat cake” culture that has infected American capitalism. As they were planning for these Congressional hearings, someone, anyone should have bravely strode into the executive wing and said, “You know, those other two guys are probably going to fly their jet to DC. We should drive our hybrid.”

That would have been the PR coup of the year. Instead, we all enjoyed watching them stumble into the PR gaffe of the year.

Should you care to re-cap the embarrassing mess from mid-November 2008:

A month later, the auto execs returned to Congress, having done their homework and with their tail between their legs. And guess what, they drove! Ford’s Alan Mulally rode from Dearborn to Washington, D.C. in a Ford Escape hybrid. GM’s Rick Wagoner (and entourage) are said to have driven a Chevy Malibu and Cobalt (both hybrids) and an alt-fuel Buick Lucerne. Chrysler’s Robert Nardelli cruised down in an Aspen SUV hybrid.

Heidi N. Moore’s blog in the WSJ’s Deal Journal of Dec. 2, 2008 makes the point smartly: “…while these supplicants may have learned their lessons about how to put on a great show of acting penitent, it isn’t clear that real penitence–or real change–is yet the order of the day.”
Yes, this story is months old, but I needed to post what I’ve been saying, for your perusal. Why this story still matters: on one hand America is coming to grips with hard-earned (?) bonuses on Wall Street, on the other hand a $500k salary cap for corporations on the government dole. Banks and financial firms can no longer hold corporate meetings under the lights of the Vegas Strip. The fallout has not yet settled.

I don’t need to tell you that things have changed. But somebody needs to tell our captains of industry. They need solid, ethically based PR counsel. Chavis Crew Communications is for hire.

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