GM's model response to potential PR hell

What do you do if you are a carmaker, and your vehicles keep self-combusting? If you are General Motors, you write and call your customers personally, offer all of them free loaners, throw your resources into an intense examination of the problem, and hold a press conference to announce all these steps to the public.

We are discussing GM's response this week to three fires during extreme stress-testing of its plug-in hybrid Volt. The get-out-in-front strategy may yet prove vain: A joint company-federal  investigation may turn up evidence requiring major over-hauling of the Volt, and public opinion meanwhile could turn against GM. Already the knives are out in the hyper-politicized sector of the media long eager to vilify this early-experimental car, devised four years ago by GM CEO Bob Lutz as an answer to the Toyota Prius, as a decidedly wrong-headed and socialist creation of President Barack Obama. At Fox Business, columnist Gerry Davis writes that the fires show that the Volt is a "lemon" and an "utter disaster."

Yet, back on planet Earth, the bulk of the early reception is positive. GM said it is willing even to lend Corvettes to its Volt owners (pictured above, comedian Jay Leno with his Volt), writes the car blog Jalopnik, but the Wall Street Journal's Sharon Terlep reports that few appear to have asked for any replacement. One reason for the lack of hysteria: No consumer has had a vehicle burst into flames, reports Ben Wojdyla at Popular Mechanics, who notes that the fires instead occurred under brutal crash conditions set up deliberately by federal vehicle safety examiners. Wojdyla writes:

Back in May, [Federal inspectors] conducted a severe side-impact crash test that smashed a Volt against a pole-shaped barrier. [They] found the Volt to meet [their] five-star crash rating. After the test they stashed the mangled Volt outside, and three weeks later the vehicle's battery pack shorted and caught fire.

The probable outcome of the probe, conjectures Wojdyla? "Safer practices that all manufacturers could apply to building the hybrid vehicles of the future."

We discuss this because of the profound scale of the potential problem: If GM does not get this right, the outcome could be a generalized stigma against electric cars and hybrids while models introduced and planned by numerous carmakers -- Nissan, Ford and many others -- are taking their first commercial steps.

The problem of super-bad PR plagues the energy and vehicle industries. This blog has remarked frequently that the shale gas industry, for instance, has failed to respond adequately to the scrutiny to which it has been subjected, and that its defensiveness could backfire on the companies.

GM's Volt response is a classic example of precisely the right way -- the only correct way, in my view -- to handle a feared public safety peril. You get out in front of the situation proactively, transparently, with the message that you are doing everything to make sure your customers are safe, and then trust in their good judgment to believe you (here is the letter that Mark Reuss, GM president for North America, sent to the company's 6,000 Volt owners. Here is a transcript of the GM news conference). Then you really do what you said you were going to do. If you are lucky, and can redeem your product, you have your customers for life, in addition perhaps to the admiration and respect of members of a wider public that was tuning in.

This is not standard behavior for the car industry. When four people died in a Lexus in 2009, and owners reported that year and the next that their cars appeared to be accelerating on their own, Toyota responded defensively, writes the L.A. Times' Jerry Hirsch -- there was nothing wrong with the cars; the owners were mistaken. A post-crisis advisory panel assembled by Toyota found that the company suffered a "devastating blow" to its reputation from the intense public scrutiny it experienced, and that it failed to adhere to its own policies for listening carefully to its customers.

That is why GM has surprised many of those who watch it. Writes Jalopnik: "This is a very shrewd PR move by GM and the Volt team. It's nice to see a company once known for ‘turtling up' in their shell-like Detroit bunker at the first sign of a problem finally being pro-active and standing by [its] product."

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