Rick Wagoner of General Motors Corp., Robert Nardelli of Chrysler and Alan Mulally of Ford Motor Co. all received tongue lashings from some lawmakers for their mode of transport. "Couldn't you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here? It would have at least sent a message that you do get it," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. But it didn't end there. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., also pushed the issue, asking the CEOs to "raise their hand if they flew here commercial. Let the record show, no hands went up."
Tom Wilkinson, a GM spokesman, told news outlets that "making a big to-do about this when issues vital to the jobs of millions of Americans are being discussed in Washington is diverting attention away from a critical debate that will determine the future health of the auto industry and the American economy."
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Still, "it sends a bad message," said a PR industry executive with knowledge of the automotive industry -- but no current ties to it. "I understand the cost of CEO time and what have you, but considering that PR is about the art of the image, that's not what I would have advised. Private plane to me feels like bonuses on Wall Street for CEOs, and that smacks of fiscal irresponsibility on the part of management."
Another marketing executive with knowledge of the auto industry and the Beltway disagrees. "It's a practical consideration for the nature of a CEO's job," the executive said. "It's not a bonus or a reward for anything. These guys are working nonstop, and for people working like that a private jet is a practical reality. So the implication that this is special treatment and somehow like what AIG did in going to the spa is just not true."
The executive noted that members of Congress have either a private car that shuttles them back and forth to Reagan National Airport or a special parking area next to the terminal. "Why do they get that?" he asked. "It's because they go back and forth all the time. It's a practical reality."
Private jets aside, this executive thinks the automakers have made some mistakes in their communications efforts and the planning of those efforts. "They underestimated the lack of understanding from people in Congress and others. ... There was this sense that we're in this boat and it's getting rocked all over the damn place and isn't everyone else seeing the storm? There was a misunderstanding there, and they waited too long to tell the story."
However, he does see some good in what they have done, particularly the "direct way" in which they are laying out the situation to Congress and consumers. "There's no bullshit here," he added. "They're saying, 'This is what we need and this is what will happen if we don't get it.' The focus on message has been exemplary in a very difficult situation. One of the positive things that comes out of this is that ultimately people will have a better understanding of the auto industry."