Since February, one company has had 14 million vehicles recalled. Yes, you know what this is about. Can GM can keep a (somewhat) positive brand image and regain, or gain, consumer’s trust? Mary Barra, GM's CEO has been in the news, which is probably good news for GM. Especially since, fortuitously perhaps, it is Mary Barra instead of her predecessor in front of the cameras, being the "human face" of the company to use a tired cliche. When a company betrays the public trust in a big way lower the drawbridge and send someone out there to speak to the people, or, depending on the circumstances, wander into the desert as the biblical goat.
There are enough examples in the automotive industry to show how much of a coin toss that can be. But Barra's reputation holds, at least so far. The honeymoon is not all that different from the sort President Obama benefitted from, though Barra won't get a Nobel Peace Prize. After all, she's the first woman to run a major auto brand, a big change from her old-white-guy predecessor. But she will fight the news cycle all the way since bad news makes better news than good news. A consumer-brand parent corporation gets earned media when its stock splits, when it buys or sells something, but mostly when it does something just stupid, venal or immoral, or dangerous.
And Americans have a dwindling interest in complicated issues, or any issues, probably thanks to new media, and new, new media, which tends to pull anything that isn't tied down into a spillway of trivia and superficiality. Gossip and news are interchangeable, and the value of it is how quickly it gets delivered, and how scandalous it is. The facts take too long to read and understand.
As an aside, companies have to swim upstream to get reporters to write about the causes, NPOs, good works, etc. that they're involved in. And who actually does so? I don't. "Can you also mention that we're also helping to build baseball diamonds for the underprivileged?" "Oh, of course, absolutely." Someone should compare the amount of coverage a company gets for donating water purifiers to poor countries to the ink that spills when the CFO is caught in a Mexican (fill in the blank here). There isn't a soul alive with a blog who won't write about that one. One brief on TMZ trumps a year of press releases about planting community gardens. And especially with GM, whom people have been writing about in a bad way for years and years, bad news is good news for reporters (like me). They may say great things about Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, and GMC, or even the executives, but for reporters, bad news at The Tubes is always good news.
But there is also good, good news for GM: the membrane between the amorphous thing called GM and the showrooms seems to be intact. Sales are still up, 12% in May, and residual values haven't plummeted. As Kelley Blue Book analyst Alec Gutierrez put it, "GM remains the largest automaker in the U.S. and continues to enjoy healthy growth in the U.S. auto sector. Car shoppers are clearly distinguishing a difference between 'new' and 'old' GM, and we expect to see GM maintain stability in the marketplace provided that it remains proactive and on top of this very serious issue.” If he's right that shoppers can make that "old" and "new" distinction, then they're a lot smarter than I give them credit for.