August 22, 2012
Tick, tick, tick.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 8/21, 4:20 p.m.) Detroit. GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson and his handler, Selim Bingol, GM’s PR chief, don’t like critics. They find them to be tedious, inaccurate and irresponsible, or, as Bingol described me in a heated email exchange after my column last week, “delusional.” Not that I would expect anything different from Bingol. After all, his job is to go after his boss’s critics, while spinning what his boss “meant” to say, which unfortunately for him is a full-time job.
As an aside, some of you readers out there and frankly even a number of insiders in this business have no idea about the level of combative give and take that goes on behind the scenes when it comes to the media covering auto stories and the manufacturer PR representatives who try like hell to influence, cajole and if need be, do damage control to contain a particularly damaging story or editorial.
Reporters are granted access – which in case you're wondering is akin to a platinum hall pass – if they're deemed "acceptable" or write consistently "favorable" pieces. These anointed reporters – much to the displeasure of their editors – can be treated like visiting potentates. On the other hand, there are reporters who have been banned outright from gaining access to top level executives at a corporation for any number of egregious slights against The Empire both real and imagined, and their punishment is meted out by PR chiefs who deny them access altogether.
And then there's me. I occupy a gray area. I have broken some news stories, but that's not what I do. My thing is that I provide commentary on a weekly basis on subjects that I find of interest about this business. I am fortunate to have a deep well of experience, which affords me a perspective that few can bring to bear on the business of commenting about this industry, but as you might imagine, I am not popular within certain circles in this business. Fortunately I don't have a compelling need to be liked, which has served me well over the last thirteen years. And this past week I was reminded of just how much I am loathed and flat-out disliked. Did it faze me? Nah, not even for a nanosecond. It just comes with the territory.
I founded this website on the premise of "influencing the influencers," promising that we were going to talk about things that others would only talk about completely "off-the-record" or in "deep background." Some of things I write about become very unpopular with people if it's not favorable to them. I get that. At the same time, when I write something favorable or complimentary, I can be deemed a hero by the recipient of my attention. I get that too. One week a hero, the next week The Most Miserable Excuse for a Human on Earth. That's just the nature of the business when you're a national commentator and influencer.
For the record, Bingol and I don't agree on much, but I respect the fact that he’s doing his job by coming out swinging in defense of his boss. But that’s where the like-fest ends, because right now Mr. Bingol and his boss have deep, festering issues to contend with, and it’s not going well for them.
And true to form, in their quest to make all the right moves and show everyone that it’s going swimmingly well down at The Silver Silos, the two of them are making all the wrong moves. (And that’s before we take into account the absolute quagmire they’re mired in with Opel and PSA Peugeot Citroen in Europe. This just in: It’s not going to end well for GM over there.)
First off, Bingol took on the intermittently engaged Keith Crain, of Automotive News (which apparently is like taking a swing at Santa in this town) who is observing the same things that other critics are starting to see about GM, and who wrote about it last week in an editorial entitled, “GM is going from bad to worse.”
Bingol weighed-in with a Letter to the Editor of AN, opening with “We agree with everything Crain wrote in the first sentence of his critique of General Motors. But not much else.” Condescending tone? Yes, of course it is, but then again the assembled media in this town already understand that this is Bingol’s perpetual MO. (I’m being kind actually. The majority of the media in this town think Bingol is an unctuous rhymes-with-kick armed with an attack-dog personality to boot, but I digress.) Bingol went on in his letter, insisting that everything is rosy at GM and that, “… turning in our 10th straight profitable quarter – the first time GM has done so in more than a decade – should lead an impartial observer to conclude that some things are headed in the right way.”
He’s right, but only to the extent that the True Believers have kept GM in the game with some outstanding products, not because Mr. Akerson is wielding some sort of magic wand to make it all wonderful. And Bingol is conveniently failing to mention that GM was given a “reset” button after its “quick rinse” bankruptcy, which allowed the company to start off with a magically cleaned slate. That certainly helped with the whole “10th straight profitable quarter” chestnut.
But Bingol wasn’t through, oh no. On Tuesday (August 21st), Akerson showed up in the Detroit Free Press with a guest editorial that was obviously written and orchestrated by Bingol and his troops down to the last comma and period and I’m sure enthusiastically endorsed by his boss. In it Dan plays the “woe is us” and “aw shucks, we’re just trying to do the best job we can possibly do” cards in order to paint his critics as bad people, and to continue the refrain that all is rosy in the Magical Kingdom of General Motors.
Akerson’s editorial closed with the following:
“While it may look a little messy from the outside, the men and women of GM understand what Teddy Roosevelt knew about the man in the arena: 'It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.'
After a wrenching bankruptcy, recession and continued economic uncertainty, we are getting there. The employees of GM believe again, and we’re hungry to win.”
Wow. There it is, folks, that’s “The Full Akerson” for all to see (which is bound to replace the expression “The Full Cleveland” at any moment). Why do I hear the voice of John McEnroe ringing in my ears all of a sudden, as in, “Are you serious?”
I don’t think the men and women of GM get up and go to work each and every morning thinking about Teddy Roosevelt’s ritual lambasting of critics. In fact, judging by the myriad reports that bubbled up from my moles within GM after my column of last week, they’re driving to work wondering how much longer they have to put up with this blockhead running the place.
As for the whole “The employees at GM believe again…” business, that has never been the issue at all. The True Believers at GM never stopped believing, as evidenced by their intense focus on bringing tremendously competitive products to market despite some incredibly challenging odds over the last few years. But therein lies yet another problem with Akerson as CEO – he is so obsessed with being viewed as a true leader and so wants to be considered “the savior” of GM in the modern era, that for him to take credit for the men and women of GM believing again is pure unmitigated bullshit and a flat-out insult to every single one of them.
As for the “… and we’re hungry to win” epithet at the end, really?
On the one hand, yes, the people at GM are hungry to win, but not for Dan Akerson or his PR meister. Or because of them, either. Neither one of them is capable of inspiring leadership or understanding what it actually means to lead people. (I keep hearing from Navy men with some familiarity with the auto business who wince every time they’re reminded that Akerson is one of them.)
The people of GM are hungry to win because they’re tired of being thrown under the bus by their own alleged leader in public and private. They’re tired of their CEO telling them that they’re not good enough, or smart enough, or focused enough to compete, but that if they just assimilate some of his gifted brilliance their lives will be irrevocably changed for the better.
And they’re especially sick and tired of the thought that the outside world has trouble taking their work seriously, because this “accidental tourist” of a CEO has taken it upon himself to be the face of the company, when they just want him to go away. And the sooner the better.
Then again on the other hand, when Akerson says he wants to “win” it’s because he’s desperate to have greatness assigned to him at some point in his career because the sum total of his career “accomplishments” to date amounts to being in the right place at the right time for a few fleeting moments.
Be that as it may, Akerson & Bingol – now officially known as the auto industry’s “Excuse Brothers” because all I hear are excuses (it's "Government Motors." It's the economy. It's treasonous employees. It's bad processes. It's paralyzed bureaucracies. For all I know he will be blaming rogue sunspots next) – are a two-man band with no backup singers, no playlist, and no chart toppers other than the product “hits” delivered by the True Believers at GM that they gleefully take credit for.
But unfortunately for Akerson and his handler, we live in a era where style and image count for absolutely everything, sometimes to the detriment of substance to be sure, but that’s the reality of the you-have-one-tweet-to-impress-me-or-else society we’re saddled with.
And make no mistake, Akerson’s style has been an absolute disaster from the beginning. He’s alienated his own troops from the get-go and continues to do so on an almost clockwork-type basis. He and his PR handler rail at his critics in a quixotic joust against windmills that either aren’t there, or that stand in defiance of their juvenile posturing as a matter of course.
And after all of that, is it any wonder that their latest charm offensive – which is desperately trying to portray Akerson as a decent enough, aw shucks kind of a guy just trying to do a job for his people and the country – is falling flat?
I don’t think so.
Damn me if you will, boys, but be forewarned that the whole “critics be damned” shtick doesn’t really work when they’re coming out of the woodwork in droves. This is just the beginning. You can expect that the critics’ drums pounding out a cadence questioning Akerson’s leadership will beat louder by the day.
But it’s not only the critics who are beginning to openly talk about the fact that The Emperor Has No Clothes that should have Messrs. Akerson and Bingol worried. No, it’s the men and women of GM who are fed up with the tone-deaf circus that seems to accompany Akerson wherever he goes that should be the most worrisome aspect.
That sound you hear?
It’s the tick, tick, tick of the clock in the middle of the night that’s magnified in the deafening silence, the one signifying that time is running out on the grand experiment to have this “accidental tourist” helming one of the world’s largest industrial concerns.
Akerson and Bingol have already lost The Game, they just don’t realize it.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.