GM's Barra Hounded Ahead of New York Auto Show

CEO and Team Continue to Weather PR Storm Over Recalls

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Mary Barra listens to opening statements at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington earlier this month
Mary Barra listens to opening statements at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington earlier this month Credit: Bloomberg/Pete Marovich

NEW YORK -- The media feeding frenzy around General Motors CEO Mary Barra began before the New York International Auto Show even started.

With GM under fire for dragging its feet on the recall of faulty ignition switches that led to a dozen deaths, Ms. Barra has become the focal point for a swarming media horde that surrounded her during two public appearances on Tuesday.

After addressing the recall crisis at the 2014 Automotive Forum sponsored by J.D. Power and NADA, Ms. Barra was surrounded by a rabid pack of reporters and photographers. The "scrum" got so bad, Mark Reuss, exec VP-global product development, purchasing and supply chain, was forced to work "crowd control," according to a tweet from Jeff Bennett of The Wall Street Journal.

The same media pack surrounded Ms. Barra again at a Chevrolet Corvette event Tuesday night, pushing, groaning and jockeying for position. Except this time, GM was smart enough to position her behind a roped-off area that enabled her to make a quick exit.

The overwhelming media coverage (including a camera crew from "60 Minutes" at the J.D. Power event) is understandable given it was Ms. Barra's first public appearance since testifying before Congress -- and since parting ways with Selim Bingol, its head of public relations (though the automaker said that move had nothing to do with the recalls).

But both GM and Ms. Barra's brands have taken significant damage. Saturday Night Live lampooned her performance before Congress and these TV images of the media pack in full cry after Ms. Barra don't help.

Some automotive experts think she should limit her public appearances moving forward.

"They want to prove that they're being transparent about this. But I think you can be too transparent," said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director of Kelley Blue Book, at a Mercedes-Benz event Tuesday night. "You have to manage the access to her."

Still, Mr. Nerad thinks Ms. Barra and GM will make it through the storm the way Toyota did two years ago.

Unlike the Toyota brand, which is on every one of its cars and trucks, "there are no GM-branded cars out there," said Mr. Nerad. "Many of the car brands affected are brands that GM doesn't even have any more."

For more coverage of the New York Auto Show, check out Automotive News.

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