How to Sell Cars and Handle Politicians
Those mealy-mouthed Detroit CEOs need an old-school PR lesson.
December 3, 2008 - 12:15 am
The Detroit CEOs are back on Capitol Hill presenting their turnaround plans in the hope of getting some kind of financial bailout package from Congress.
On their last visit their mealy-mouthed responses in the face of grandstanding politicians got them no assistance and made them no friends among the public. Their generally poor performance, in particular that of GM CEO Rick Wagoner, reminds me of another Detroit CEO who also testified before Congress.
How Americans and our politicians perceive the domestic auto industry and how management perceives consumers and the political process are critical elements in making and selling cars — or anything for the matter. If you don’t accurately perceive the customers’ needs, wants, and their own perceptions of you you’re not going to sell much of anything. Being politically astute doesn’t hurt either.
The other GM CEO who testified before Congress was Charles Wilson, in this case back in 1953 during his confirmation hearings to become President Eisenhower’s secretary of defense.
Rick Wagoner’s problem is that he’s more like the guys on Wall Street than Charles Wilson.
Wagoner has financial and business degrees. While Charles Wilson was indeed a successful businessman, “Engine Charlie” Wilson was an engineer. He started out in 1909 at Westinghouse, where he engineered electrical components for the young auto industry and then developed electronic devices for the U.S. Army during World War I. After the war he moved to Remy, which was acquired by GM along with Charles Kettering’s Dayton Electric Company (Delco) to form Delco-Remy. Between the wars he moved up the General Motors engineering and corporate ladder to become president in 1941 and after World War II he succeeded Alfred P. Sloan as CEO. During the war he was the director of the War Production Board and father of the postwar-dedicated defense industry that later helped win the Cold War and now provides our armed forces with the most advanced weapons in the world. Politics being politics, Wilson’s patriotism could not be questioned, but there was concern about conflict of interest because he would not divest his $2.5 million in GM stock, about $20 million in 2008 dollars. When asked if he could make a decision in the best interest of the country that would disfavor GM, he replied that he thought he could, but that that kind of a situation was beyond his conception, “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”
What’s interesting about public perception is how Wilson’s quote is viewed today. To begin with you’ve probably heard it, or rather, probably heard something like it. It’s more frequently misquoted than quoted accurately, enough to be in books about frequent misquotations. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” is a part of lore, not quite urban legend, but based enough on reality to circulate without challenge. I started using Google as an admittedly rough tool to examine how people perceive GM today. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” yields 3,030 hits. Not only is that a misquotation but it’s not very favorable to GM, making it seem like he is putting GM before country rather than, well, vice versa. “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors,” another misquote, though more accurate and less negative about GM (or big business in general), yields only 742 hits. “What was good for the country was good for General Motors,” accurate but favorable to GM, yields 1,190 hits. “What was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa,” accurate but fully in context and balanced, gave 969 hits. As a rough estimate of people’s perception of GM today, that’s 2,901 hits on more or less accurate accounts of the former GM CEO’s statement that are favorable or balanced with regard to GM vs 3,030 misquotations whose language place GM in a poor light.
Now I didn’t check to see the exact context in which Wilson’s words were quoted or misquoted, but I did a search for “General Motors,” “good for,” and America. There were 795,000 hits. The first page of results on Google were all quotations, misquotations, or paraphrases of Charlie Wilson’s remarks before Congress. Looking at the first few results, only two citations out of 14 accurately quoted Wilson. Four references were in what I judged to be a “GM neutral” context, five were positive, and six were negative. These results pretty much confirm impressions from the search on the actual quotation. It’s often misquoted and more often than not given a negative spin about General Motors. To give you an idea of the flavor of some idea how negative, the title of two of the items were:
Okay, so that last one is from The Progressive. I wouldn’t expect a left-wing publication to be nice to a major corporation, but that’s what most people see when they use things like Google for information. The way Wilson is misquoted to GM’s detriment doesn’t seem fair to “Engine” Charlie, who was a great American who helped us win three global conflicts and was a key figure in establishing global industrial dominance by the U.S.
Maybe Rick Wagoner really knows how angry Americans are at Detroit and he just doesn’t know how to deal gracefully and artfully with both Congress and the American people. Maybe he’s completely clueless. Or maybe he’s so committed to his vision that he’s the Rod Marinelli of corporate America, not willing to quit in the face of strong evidence of failure.
In any case, he doesn’t seem to have anywhere near Charlie Wilson’s capacity for gauging how both politicians and the public would perceive his words. GM was the biggest company in the world in 1953 and under “Engine” Charlie they sold a lot of cars. Despite how people view his words today, senators knew how his words would be perceived by the American people and they confirmed him by a vote of 77 to 6.
Perhaps as they revisit Washington, Wagoner and the other Detroit CEOs should take a page from Charlie Wilson’s book and not be afraid to use the hearings to challenge the demagogues, make a forceful defense of the domestic automakers, and appeal directly to the American people. A case can be made that a healthy domestic auto industry is in the nation’s best interest. Wilson was able to make that case. The question remains if the current Detroit CEOs are up to that task.