What Auto Executives Should Remember When Visiting Congress

Jun 13 2014, 5:56am CDT | by

General Motors Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra is scheduled to testify again before Congress next week. A common view was that things didn’t go so well when she testified a few months ago.

Looking beyond Barra and the GM recalls she’ll be discussing, testifying before Congress often does not play to the strengths of auto executives. Typically, such testimony occurs when things are bad. In 2001, then-CEO of Jacques Nasser of Ford Motor testified about tire problems on Ford sport-utility vehicles. Seven years later, the heads of GM, Ford and Chrysler talked to committees of the Senate and House about why an industry bailout was needed. In short, such gathers occur when conditions are tense.

With that in mind, here are things all auto executives should bear in mind the nex

t time they have to go to Capitol Hill.

You work in a bubble. Top auto executives do work long hours. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. Even when they get out of the office, it’s to another company facility or to an event where work is involved. As a result, it’s easy to be submerged in the business, lapse into auto-speak before the general public and expect people to care about cars the way you do.

In fact, lots of people — and this includes U.S. senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives — don’t keep up on every industry development. The general public’s impressions of an automaker can be shaped by a bad experience at an auto dealer. Or a car of theirs that broke down once.

One of the best examples of the auto executive bubble was told in the 1994 book “Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry by Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White.

Lee Iacocca had been in the bubble so long at Ford and Chrysler, he had missed out on how gas stations had converted to self service. Thus, Iacocca got a surprise when he finally had to drive himself again. “Pump it yourself, Mac,” Ingrassia and White quoted an unnamed attendant as telling Iacocca.

When you’re in a bubble, you can miss all sorts of things. That can be a hazard on a trip to Washington. In 2008, the automaker CEOs took private jets to the U.S. capital. That made sense on one level (it’s quicker) but not outside the bubble (flying in a private jet to ask for taxpayer money didn’t go over well).

You are on their turf. Because of the bubble factor, auto executives are used to being treated nicely. Often, extremely nicely. With a factory visit, the plant manager wants to make sure the Big Boss gets a favorable impression. At a civic event, a grateful charity will express thanks. When talking to local or state officials, deference is often paid in the hopes of keeping present plants or attracting new investment.

All that goes out the window upon arriving in Washington. Members of Congress can issue subpoenas. Senators and representatives are now the ones expecting to be paid deference. You’re the head of a big company? They talk to heads of countries.

If you’re hesitant to answer a question, they can get testy. Barra experienced that earlier this year. The three CEOS in 2008 did as well. It’s an elementary point, but one that executives need to remind themselves before any such appearance.

You are on camera every minute. Everything you’re going

to say is recorded. One slip, and there will be visual evidence. Reporters and editors who aren’t present in the hearing room will monitor the video. The fact there is such video evidence also means….

Don’t give comedians any fodder. Saturday Night Live did parodies of both Barra in 2014 and the three automaker CEOs in 2008. Becoming the subject of ridicule can eat away at your credibility.

GM's Recall Crisis

 
 

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