Under fire: GM's Barra deflects hard questions

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 2, 2014 at 7:25 am •  Published: April 2, 2014
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But some lawmakers appeared somewhat more sympathetic to Barra, who was thrust into a crisis after becoming the first woman CEO of a major automaker in January. In 33 years at GM, Barra worked in engineering, communications and human resources. She's a second-generation GM employee: Her father was a GM die maker for four decades.

Not everything went smoothly for the new CEO Tuesday, who flew commercial to the hearing. Barra struggled to explain how GM could continue to use parts that didn't meet its own specifications. When she tried to draw a distinction between parts that didn't meet specs and those that were defective and dangerous, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said: "What you just answered is gobbledygook."

Dan Hill, president of a Washington firm that advises clients on public relations and crisis management, said Barra erred by contrasting today's safety-conscious GM with the belt-tightening GM that sought bankruptcy protection in 2009. "Barra threw the old GM under the bus by saying that the previous company that she grew up in and held executive positions in was based on a 'cost culture' as opposed to a 'customer first' culture," Hill said, noting that the implicit criticism of her predecessors could be used as ammunition in lawsuits against GM.

But some corporate image experts praised Barra for seizing the initiative by announcing that GM has hired Kenneth Feinberg — who handled the fund for the victims of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill — to explore ways to compensate victims of accidents in the GM cars. Barra didn't commit GM to setting up such a fund.

"She didn't make mistakes," says Gene Grabowski, a crisis management consultant who helps executives prepare for congressional testimony. "That's how you survive a hearing."

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Durbin reported from Detroit. AP Business Writer Marcy Gordon in Washington contributed to this story.