Crisis Communication 2.0: Mary Barra Strong In Adversity

Jun 10 2014, 12:06pm CDT | by

By Shannon M. Wilkinson

With 13 deaths tied to General Motors’ ignition switch malfunctions, a wave of recent recalls and a $35 million fine all tarring the company’s reputation, GM’s CEO Mary Barra is in a hot seat that keeps igniting. It has been suggested that she has stepped onto a “glass cliff,” been given more of chance because of her gender and may be at risk of losing her job. Such portrayals don’t give her the credit her performance merits.  So her inclusion on Forbes new list of the world’s most powerful women is a step in the right direction.

Barra has not been able to stop GM’s crisis. But her 2.0 crisis communications skills are an asset to GM. They can be judged by the transparency and skill with which she handled the recall crisis on the Internet. From the start, she deftly confronted the issue while downplaying the significance of her gender. Barra’s communications strategy incorporates multiple digital media platforms. She has used these channels to respond to the crisis with a strong and genuine message. In addition to harnessing social media like Facebook and Twitter to connect directly with customers, she has also addressed the recalls in a series of videos, a USA TODAY editorial, and even her commencement speech at the University of Michigan earlier this month.

Sage advice

“Problems don’t go away when you ignore them — they get bigger,” Barra advised Michigan’s graduates. While that might sound like a well-worn aphorism, she understands that it’s taken on new meaning and weight in the digital era—especially when it comes to CEOs and other high-profile people. On the Huffington Post, business strategy consultant Alice Korngold points to Barra as an example of how social media is becoming an increasingly vital tool for CEOs, while ethics and leadership expert Terry Newell says her approach demonstrates how “corporate leaders are increasingly ‘public officials’”:

In the world of social media, the World Wide Web, and a 24/7 news cycle, private sector leaders can neither isolate their companies nor control the expectations that govern how they need to behave. They cannot isolate their images from the glaring light of public scrutiny.

Writing on, Davia Temin views the crisis as Barra’s “chance to write the playbook for how to handle a huge corporate crisis in the 21st century, when news, information, and misinformation travel at the speed of electrons.” She is also “using this crisis to transform the old GM culture,” according to Harvard Business School Professor Bill George. “By being open and transparent about GM’s problems, Barra has aligned herself with her customers and ameliorated public outrage,” he adds.

As Barra strives to quell outrage and better understand and engage with the public and GM’s customers, she has established herself at the forefront of several important trends in the marketplace. A December 2013 Pew Research Center report found that women are more active than men on social media, especially Facebook. They are also becoming a larger and more influential segment of the auto market, according to’s Sue Mead. It’s not surprising, then, that Fortune ranked her #1 on its list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business (Forbes ranks her #7).  It will be fascinating to watch as she takes GM in a new direction. Her astute 2.0 playbook is an effective strategy other CEOs can learn from.

Shannon M. Wilkinson is founder and CEO of Reputation Communications, an online reputation management firm for clients in business, finance and philanthropy. She tweets @reputationnews.


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