October 31, 2012
Revenge of the Telecomies and the Motor City’s PR nightmares du jour.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 10/30, 10:45 a.m.) Detroit. It’s appropriate that our publication date falls on Halloween this week, as the PR nightmares continue in and around this business, starting with, of course, the ridiculous give and take between our – cough, hack – illustrious presidential candidates, who continue to wrangle over the auto bailout while removing what little shred of credibility is left from either side of the discussion. They’re both in denial and saying anything they can to capture the highest office in the land, and as the days wind down to next Tuesday, the words disgraceful and disgusting come to mind to describe their respective camps’ behavior. But hey, that’s how politics is defined here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. It’s a revolving cesspool of bad actors, empty promises and enough stupidity to make us collectively ask every four years: Is the best we can muster? Really?
Somehow this business and life its own self (kudos to Dan Jenkins and Dr. Bud for that phrase) comes down to Public Relations. Let me clarify that, good Public Relations. You either have it, need it, want it or wish you had it. It’s that simple. Because when you’re living in a swirling maelstrom of bad PR, life can be a brutal, never-ending slog of recrimination and self-flagellation.
Let’s start with Ford. Their swirling maelstrom of crap starts and ends with a Consumer Reports magazine crew that is out to crucify the company for egregious affronts to consumers both real and imagined. Did Ford go too far with its drive to be the most forward-thinking, touchy-feely techie car company in the land? Yes, of course they did. And the result? MyFord Touch has not been well received in ConsumerVille. (Ah yes, consumers. Their tolerance level for anything the least bit challenging is zero. But then again their credibility isn’t always impeccable, as their personal enlightenment too often leaves much to be desired. After all, from this illustrious group came the brilliant posse who bought Hummer H2s, and then proceeded to complain to J.D Power about the vehicle’s fuel economy in surveys. Nicely done.)
Have the Consumer Reports editors used its jihad against Ford to call attention to them and their publication? Absolutely. That’s what the magazine does on a regular basis, sort of like the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety does with its standing offer from NBC News to run crash tests that will look appropriately horrifying on the Today Show. But has the magazine thrown an entire company under the bus – a company that’s building some of the best mass-produced vehicles in the world – because of an electronics interface? Yes.
And therein lies Ford’s PR problem. Ford’s PR maestro, Ray Day, and his team, have their work cut out for them. The natural tendency in the PR biz is to always overreact, but so far, I haven’t seen that from Dearborn. They’re building excellent cars and trucks and they know it, and they’re tweaking MyFord Touch by the hour to make it better, but then again that may not be enough. A major reassessment of how Ford handles its consumer interface inside their vehicles may be in order. Until then, Ford will have to bend over backwards to gain positive consumer word of mouth.
How about the denizens of the Silver Silos? GM PR’s nightmare (besides me) begins with the fact that there’s a major disconnect between the excellent cars and trucks they build (for the most part) juxtaposed against the fact that the “Government Motors” moniker is still hanging over the company like a giant scythe.
This is the one thing that vexes CEO Dan “Captain Queeg” Akerson more than any other. It fuels negativity amongst a large section of the populace that still bristles over it, it prevents the company from luring top-notch talent to its executive ranks, and it’s killing the company image-wise. Akerson desperately wants out from under that tag, and he can’t wait until the U.S. Government divests itself from the company’s shares (which will happen sometime after the election and before the end of first quarter of 2013, count on it).
In the meantime, powerless to do anything about GM’s “Government Motors” cross to bear, Akerson careens around GM like a bull in a china shop, making bad decisions in rote fashion while operating in a blissful state of tone-deafness that defies description. His PR handler, Selim Bingol, who was brought to Detroit by drive-by former CEO Ed Whitacre, has had a tough time of it to say the least. But then again, all of these telecom executives who have wandered into this business through GM have had a tough time adjusting.
Why? Well it might have something to do with the fact that their arrogant attitude is unrepentant and jaw dropping to witness, even in this town of wildly self-inflated egos. It’s not in the Italians’ league out in Auburn Hills – not even close, in fact – but it’s staggering to observe in its own right. The Telecomies just think the business is child’s play, and they don’t understand the fuss. Captain Queeg has repeatedly gone on record as saying that anyone can “do” product, that there’s nothing to it, and that the constant hand-wringing about whether you’re a “car guy” or not is juvenile and boring. Meanwhile Akerson and his hand-selected minions are threatening to drive GM and its True Believers – the men and women keeping GM in the fight – right over the edge.
You can always tell when Akerson has had a particularly bad spate of personally negative PR, because he inevitably donates a car or money to a local charity to emphasize to all that he’s one with the community and that he cares. The money is welcomed, but the cynicism behind it isn’t. Akerson doesn’t live here and he’s not about to. And camping in a downtown hotel doesn’t constitute being one with the community either. It will never disguise the fact that he’s a carpetbagging interloper and an “Accidental Tourist” of a CEO who will leave GM in a little over a year to collective shouts of “thank goodness” and “OMG, finally!”
I don’t envy Bingol in this mess, but then again he signed up for it, and it’s his unique burden to bear. (And that I am Public Enemy No. 1 in his and Akerson’s book is just fine with me, because I couldn’t care less. The High-Octane Truth is not for the faint of heart.)
In the end there’s no amount of PR wrangling that’s going to make Captain Queeg into a lovable, respected CEO. That’s just GM’s – and Bingol’s – particular PR nightmare du jour.
And then there’s Fiat-Chrysler. The quasi-American, Italian-owned enterprise fueled by the talents of the True Believers out in Auburn Hills toiling in the shadow of their Italian overlords is cookin’. It’s quite a deal Sergio & Co. has worked out, actually. The True Believers do all of the work and make all the cash for the company, while Sergio and his merry men take all of the credit. And thus it was ever so throughout Sergio’s illustrious career. (The Vice-President denies that Sergio was “gifted” Chrysler in his latest stump speeches, but the fact of the matter is that’s exactly how it went down.)
And why fight it? After all Sergio is The Exalted One, the eternal Smartest Guy in the Room, and not a discouraging word shall penetrate his façade of greatness, because if it weren’t for him Chrysler would be a faded memory by now, right? Right.
That his persona of invincibility and aura of greatness are all calculated is beyond most people, especially a shocking number in the media, but I digress. It is what it is, and his personal PR bag man, Gualberto Ranieri, operates in a kind of netherworld where his only job is to prevent discouraging words from ever crossing Sergio’s bow, which in this town is a cakewalk, what with the slobbering media hanging on Sergio’s every word and all. (In Italy it’s a completely different story, as Sergio has worn out his welcome and the agitation directed toward him is ramping up by the day.)
You would think that Ranieri would be, for all intents and purposes, Marchionne’s personal valet, someone seen and never heard, and that’s sort of how it works. (Except for this week when Ranieri had to correct the bumbling Romney campaign for a blatant falsehood about Jeeps being built in China. Will they eventually build Jeeps in China? Of course they will. Just not soon enough to be part of the discussion in this lame-ass Presidential campaign.)
But then again Ranieri is a graduate of the renowned Unctuous Prick University of PR (Bingol graduated summa cum laude from there as well), and he wears his boss’s condescending attitude and extravagantly overwrought hubris like a Day-Glo pocket square, with the only thing missing from his suit being the battle ribbons awarded to him by Sergio for his years of faithful and meritorious service.
That Ranieri marches to his boss’s beat is to be expected. That’s what professional PR people do. With Marchionne setting the tone by viewing anyone and everything that came before him in this town as being irrelevant, pedantic and well, inconsequential, Ranieri is in perfect lockstep with his boss, and the condescension plainly oozes right out of him.
Ranieri is also the only PR guy in this town devoid of the nightmares visited upon the others. His “What, me worry?” attitude is perfectly in sync with his boss’s view of the world, and no negatives are even off to the horizon to threaten their blissful state. To that I say, “We’ll see,” because as the European situation darkens further, the burgeoning calamity that is becoming Fiat may just derail Sergio’s grandiose plans for world domination for good.
The PR nightmares in this town change like the shifting winds, and the PR operatives engaged in dealing with them understand that implicitly. Some have it goin’ on, and some will eventually leave their posts still searching for a clue. It doesn’t make it any easier by any means, but that’s how the game is played.
As I said, when it comes to good PR you either have it, need it, want it or wish you had it.
It really is that simple.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
Subscribe via iTunes:
Subscribe via RSS: