Lessons from GM’s Naughty Words Embarrassment

May 21, 2014

Lessons from GM’s Naughty Words Embarrassment

The latest embarrassment in GM’s much delayed ignition switch recall is the release of its 2008 training manual that discouraged or banned the use of words like “safety,” “dangerous” and “problem,” among many others. GM’s intent was to discourage employees from using colorful language that could, and likely would, be used against the company in potential personal injury lawsuits. But the release of this six-year-old manual after months of revelations about GM’s malfeasance in recalling cars for a faulty ignition switch feeds the narrative of an orchestrated corporate cover-up. It looks like GM gagged its own employees to keep its safety problems a secret.

Business leaders and communicators should take a few moments to consider GM’s naughty words embarrassment because the reality is that all of us seek or provide counsel daily on the language companies should use to tell their stories or make their cases most effectively.  Reacting to the GM story, a professional in our industry told me recently that he regularly advises clients on the words they should use and the ones they should lose.

So, how does one navigate the line between sound, professional advice on language, and the censorship or cover-up stigma that now surrounds GM? The key is to recognize that Americans expect straight talk, especially when it comes to important subjects like health, safety and personnel issues, to name a few. Indeed, Americans credit companies and government leaders alike when they are forthright and factual even when admitting problems, and will punish those that they feel hold back important information or mislead them. Thus, to help companies and avoid the kind of backlash GM is experiencing, communications counsel not only needs to be grounded in sound research, it also needs to pass a common sense straight talk test. Business leaders and communicators should ask themselves: Will those hearing or reading our words (and our strategic advice which often does not stay private) believe that we have been forthcoming and sincere in our communication? Under this test, GM’s manual prohibiting the use of both common and bizarre language would fail.

The irony of the situation is that GM was correct to instruct employees not to conclude that a part is “defective” unless and until the company has made an official determination because this finding triggers a government reporting obligation within five days. However, waiting years to reach that conclusion on the ignition switch and officially report this safety problem to the government was a major GM defect.

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