The news from General Motors continues to get worse. Last month the carmaker began a worldwide recall of over one million of its vehicles, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ions, due to faulty ignition switches that resulted in 12 deaths. Then, a federal review of those GM vehicles dating from 2003 to 2012 found that faulty airbags were responsible for an astonishing 303 deaths.
Lawmakers are pressing for answers as to how long GM knew about the issues and what they did about them. GM’s answer has been to launch what chief executive Mary T. Barra calls an “unvarnished” investigation. Leading this investigation will be the law firm of King & Spalding – the same firm that had been defending GM in wrongful death lawsuits.
Conflict of interest? Whether it will be in reality or not isn’t really the question. The firm will have to do enough digging to preserve their reputation while still being able to call GM one of their main clients. But if anyone asked internal PR what this move would look like to the outside world, GM apparently ignored that information as well.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for GM.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Even in times of triage – perhaps especially so – appearances matter. When faced with a product issue that has resulted in death, companies must quickly go into damage control. The smartest take immediate measures to prevent further injury or loss of life, own up, and set their PR firms to work on image rebuild. In GM’s case that time is over. And ironically, the company’s goal – preserve the bottom line by presenting the image of taking action – can shoot itself in the foot with the implication of more coverups, this time by the company’s trusted law firm. It’s an action, but it’s hardly a strategy, and it may cause more damage than it controls.