General Motors is facing the largest auto industry recall crisis since Toyota’s controversy with stuck accelerators. GM has recently announced several different defects across multiple car lines, resulting in the recall of nearly 5 million vehicles. But the defect that sparked the crisis is the most striking for its seeming triviality: a tiny ignition switch in Chevy Cobalts and other GM models that could be deactivated by jostling key rings, causing the car to turn off. The consequences of the switch malfunction, however, are far from trivial: 13 deaths linked to loss of control when the cars shut down while in motion.
Damning reports reveal General Motors was aware of the switch problem for a decade, pursuing quiet, quick and incomplete fixes while deeming the defect not to be a safety problem. GM redesigned the switch without assigning a new part number to the new switch, obscuring the change and making it virtually impossible to isolate the previous generation of defective switches. Concurrently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to detect any trends in ignition switch malfunctions leading to accidents, creating a related PR crisis for the government agency.
General Motors’ “code of silence” and slowness to act mirror corporate behavior in other major automobile defect crises over several decades. The following descriptions of these crises include information I shared in my previous blog, “Release,” at the time of Toyota’s crisis in 2009.
Toyota, stuck accelerators–In 2009, reports surfaced that Toyotas were experiencing sudden, unexpected acceleration leading to accidents and deaths including those of Highway Patrolman Mark Saylor and his family. Toyota insisted the problems were due to either floor mats interfering with the accelerator pedals or driver error. The latter attempt to blame consumers rang particularly hollow in light of Mark Saylor’s deadly crash, as he was a trained driver. Additional reports revealed that Toyota concealed knowledge of accelerator defects. In March 2014, the U.S. government levied a $1.2 billion fine against Toyota for its misconduct.
Ford/Firestone, Explorer rollovers–In 2000, the NHTSA investigated the high incidence of rollovers for Ford’s trendsetting Explorer SUV. Tread separation on the stock Firestone tires was singled out as a cause. Soon, Ford and Firestone were in a fingerpointing war over shoddy tires and tippy SUVs with both corporate giants accused of insufficient empathy for accident victims. Subsequent reports showed that Ford had longstanding, internal concerns about the Explorer’s susceptibility to rollover.
Ford, Pinto gas tank ruptures–Perhaps the signature auto industry crisis, the 1970s subcompact was deemed vulnerable to fires and explosions from gas tanks rupturing in rear-end collisions. Mother Jones produced a “smoking gun” memo claiming Ford knew of the problem and had decided settling lawsuits would be cheaper than a redesign. Later investigation would cast doubt on the conspiracy theory and the Pinto’s actual deficiencies. Still perception is everything, including the lingering perception of Ford as a money-grubbing builder of dangerous cars.
The gold standard for dealing with product defects and executing crisis response comes not from the auto industry. Johnson & Johnson was universally lauded for its conduct during the Tylenol poisonings of the 1980s. While product tampering not corporate errors were the cause of deaths, J&J pulled Tylenol off the shelves, designed tamper-proof packaging, and eventually discontinued capsules in favor of one-piece caplets. They took full responsibility for public safety and kept lines of communication open. All of J&J’s choices were costly, yet invaluable. The Tylenol brand survived and flourished, J&J’s reputation grew, and the case study became standard reading for PR students and practitioners.
Instead of following Johnson & Johnson’s example, General Motors took the course chosen by several of its fellow automakers–submerging its problems until bad press arose. Like Ford and Toyota did after their crises erupted, GM is sending its CEO to Capitol Hill to face a congressional grilling. That chief executive, Mary Barra, is new to the position but has worked for GM since she was a teenager, following in her father’s footsteps.
The Ford and Toyota CEOs, Jacques Nasser and Akio Toyoda, performed poorly in their public questionings, intensifying the outrage against their companies. Will Ms. Barra reverse this history after General Motors failed to reverse the history of auto manufacturers compounding product defects with dismal crisis management?