GM boss Bob Lutz to C-suite peers: Say something!

One of the survivors at General Motors is 70-something vice chairman Bob Lutz, who communicates constantly.

He blogs regularly, he does TV and he even addressed the members of the Public Relations Society of America at the 2008 International Conference, held in Detroit last fall. In that speech, PRSA members heard Lutz preach what he practices:

There ain’t no risk-free lunch. “How many times have you read a corporate press release, a canned statement, or the ‘A’ portions of a Q&A document and thought, ‘This doesn’t say anything!’?” he asked the PR crowd.

I’ve been a lifelong critic of corporate communications that don’t communicate, or are too sanitized.

All large corporations are good at it, and General Motors is certainly no exception.

In this case, communications, instead of being a weapon for putting out the truth, becomes simple risk avoidance. It focuses on making sure that no one says the wrong thing.

And often, by focusing on not saying the wrong thing, you’re essentially saying nothing … With this kind of approach, nothing “wrong” will be communicated, but nor will anything beneficial or memorable.

Transparency creates a cult following. Lutz pointed out that the GM Volt has become an “iconic vehicle” long before its launch. Why?

We’ve been totally open with the press about the vehicle’s design, how and why changes were made from concept to production, how the battery testing is going, and so forth.

A cult following has sprung up, exemplified in part by Volt Nation, a group started by a New York neurosurgeon and electric car enthusiast. It’s a rather rabid following, and I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a large number of them. Their website has a “Volt waiting list” with about 50,000 names on it.

You can bet the list, or the group, wouldn’t be as large if we had simply introduced the Volt Concept car and gone dark.

Understatement and accuracy beat hyperbole and fluff. Quoth Lutz:

It irritates me when I see a press release that says “the finest, best-looking sedan in its class” or something to that effect.

Journalists don’t like to be told what their review is going to be.

The automotive journalist believes that he or she has the role of evaluating the vehicle as presented and then reporting on it.

And if we tell them in advance how wonderful it is, it tends to trigger the negative antibodies … “You’re trying to do my job for me—I’ll show you. Let ME be the judge of that.”

It’s much better when you state the facts calmly and accurately, and then say “It was our goal to” or “Our intent was” or “We strove to …”

Be nice; be assertive.

Journalists, being people, like subjects who have a human touch, have a sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously. And that’s how I would tell you to approach them, and counsel your executives to approach them.

How they must hate the pompous, self-congratulatory, big-shot stuffed shirts they so often have to interview, especially when all they get are tired tidbits of the company line doled out with a heaping helping of arrogance.

But, if you do find yourself on the receiving end of a true media hatchet job, take ’em on! … When a story appears with which you take righteous exception, don’t hesitate to dispute its content or conclusions publicly.

You have to communicate in person and in real time.

Even just five years ago, if you’d told me I would appear on the Stephen Colbert show or be writing a blog, I would’ve reacted with real skepticism.

Now, doing these things is practically second nature.

And, I will admit, one of my first attractions to the GM FastLane Blog was the opportunity to skewer the media right back when they say something blatantly inaccurate about us.

But it’s so much more than that, I’ve come to realize. It’s an opportunity to have a real dialogue with our customers and potential customers. It’s an opportunity to put our message out there, unfiltered.

And it’s immediate. I don’t have to tell you how important the timing of getting your message out there is; if it’s too late, it’s too late. You’re sunk.

Enough said.

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