You’d think a company that flew its CEO to Washington on a private jet for $20,000 to beg Congress for a multi-billion dollar government rescue would by now have developed sensitive enough PR antenna to spot a corporate reputation dog’s dinner on the horizon. Apparently not so at General Motors. The “new” General motors, with a different CEO, recently struggled with PR mess that shows when it comes to public outrage — it’s less about the numbers — and more about symbolic value of the transgression.
As Dr. Daniel Diermeier of Northwestern University observed in his 2011 book Reputation Rules: Strategies for Building Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset, the cost of the CEO flying private to DC was a drop in the bucket compared to the $25 billion bailout the U.S. auto industry sought at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. The symbolic cost, however, was much higher as taxpayers grew outraged over the disconnect between the huge financial ask and the mode of transport.
The Detroit big three soon sold their company jets.
Eleven years later it’s springtime and opening month for that most American of institutions, major league baseball, including the Detroit Tigers. Those of a certain age will remember Chevrolet’s ad slogans that painted Chevy as part of the American fabric much like baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. Keeping with that tradition, for the past ten years Chevy has displayed its newest models in the outfield of Detroit’s Comerica Park.
This year it was a Chevy pickup — good so far — and the new Chevy Blazer — not so good. The Blazer is assembled in Mexico and, as the irreverent automotive blog Jalopnik said, “this pissed a lot of people off.”
The public outrage followed recent GM announcements that it’s closing the Detroit-Hamtramck and Lordstown, OH assembly plants plus three others. Let’s remember that Donald Trump won Michigan by three-tenths of a percent because the auto workers there grew tired of seeing their jobs go to other countries.
As the outrage mushroomed GM quickly swapped out the Blazer for another vehicle but not without first noting that Blazer production contributes about a half-billion dollars annually to the U.S. economy, as if that fact would somehow counteract the absurdity of putting a truck assembled in Mexico above center field of Detroit’s major league ballpark.
Getting the facts out about the Blazer’s contribution to the U.S. economy was not the right answer. Eleven years ago the symbolism of a $20,000 private jet flight to beg for a taxpayer bailout obliterated any rational thinking and cost GM’s CEO his job. Today, the Blazer’s half-billion dollar contribution to the U. S. economy meant nothing to the out-of-work auto workers throwing beer cans at it from the outfield bleachers.