It’s not often that you see the hiring of a PR person get the coverage that Tony Cervone’s return to General Motors is receiving, but it is also not often that a company’s future depends so heavily on how well it pieces together its shattered public image “in the face of several federal investigations and the company’s internal inquiry into its handling of the recall” of millions of vehicles with defective ignition switches, as the New York Times’ Bill Vlasic observes.
Cervone, who is leaving Volkswagen AG's U.S. PR operation, is an “old hand” at GM, several headlines inform us, which in today’s fluid environment mean that he spent a decade at the automaker from 2000 to 2009. He “was a top lieutenant of Steve Harris when Harris ran communications at both Chrysler and GM,” reports Reuters’ Ben Klayman. “On May 8, GM said it had hired Harris on a contract basis for a limited time to help it with the handling of the defective-switch crisis.”
Cervone’s previous stint presumably gives him valuable experience dealing with GM’s entrenched culture without imprinting a lifer’s sense of its inevitability.
“Tony brings an ideal mix of outside perspective and experience that complements a deep background in GM and today’s global auto industry,” CEO Mary Barra said in a statement. “I’ve worked with Tony in the past and he has my trust and respect. I know he’ll be another catalyst for change on our leadership team.”
Selim Bingol, who had been GM’s SVP of public policy and communications since his appointment by former CEO Ed Whitacre in 2010, resigned last month “amid a crisis…” to “pursue other interests,” Nathan Bomey reported in the Detroit Free Press.
In an interview with Automotive News’ Gabe Nelson, “Cervone said he jumped at the opportunity to take a job that he described as the ‘pre-eminent automotive communications job in the industry.’ He said he knows some of the executives fairly well from his previous stint at GM, though there is some ‘new blood’ within the company,” Nelson writes.
“I just think this company has the opportunity to rebuild its reputation to be an American icon again,” Cervone said. “Being part of the team that helps to do that is really exciting to me.”
David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., tells Bloomberg’s Tim Higgins that Cervone’s experience in the industry is critical for GM. “This is a time of elevated importance for that position,” Cole said. “They’ve got a story to tell and they haven’t told it very well.”
Chris Bruce’s lede on AOL’s Autoblog takes a different perspective, pointing out that Volkswagen’s American operation is losing its EVO of group communications at a time when it is “going through a rough patch itself.”
Bruce says VW — which “might cut back sales targets, and has an ongoing fiasco about where to build its CrossBlue crossover” — emailed him that Scott Vazin, VW’s VP of brand communications, will handle Cervone’s duties on an interim basis as it searches for a permanent replacement.
Back at GM, “it is expected that Cervone will work alongside Harris. who retired from GM in 2004, returned to the company for the first time in 2006 as the company dealt with the financial crisis that ultimately led to its bankruptcy,” according to The Holmes Report. “Harris retired again in 2009 and had been serving for the past three years as a partner at McGinn & Company, a crisis management consultancy based in Arlington, Va.”
Harris generally earned kudos as GM’s spokesman during the turbulent mid-to-late aughts as the automaker rebounded from its near demise. Now it’s in crisis mode again.
“Can GM regain confidence of regulators, consumers?” the Detroit Free Press asked in a piece published Sunday. Brent Snavely and Nathan Bomey took a look at everything GM has done since March to do so but pointed out that “whether all the actions so far, taken in the heat of crisis, will lead to a change in the GM’s culture will take longer to know.”
It will be Cervone’s job to convince those regulators and consumers — not to mention investors — that GM recognizes that its culture has been as rusty and crusty as your father’s Oldsmobile. But he and his boss — he’ll be reporting directly to Barra — will have to do a lot more than just come up with a catchy tagline if they are to fare better than the Olds did.