Matt Lauer this morning interviewed Fritz Henderson, the embattled president and COO of General Motors. It was a brave move on Mr. Henderson’s part, following two solid weeks of the media and pundits questioning why the CEOs of the Detroit Big 3 would take private planes to Washington to ask for a bailout for which they had no plan.
Matt got right to the point in this morning’s interview: “Would you concede that that was both a business and public relations disaster?”
“It was certainly not our finest hour,” was Mr. Henderson’s response.
One hell of a statement from a guy whose company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars shuttling him and his family around in a private jet.
But the fact that he didn’t have a better answer for a question that had been brewing for 2 weeks isn’t the primary issue. That the Big 3 did nothing for 2 weeks is the problem.
If there’s one thing all CEOs, PR people, and handlers should’ve learned from AIG it’s that luxury is an unpopular position in a financial crisis. American families all across the country had a little less on their tables for Thanksgiving this year, as the media told the story of the auto execs showing up in DC in their private jets, with their limos and drivers begging for taxpayer dollars. And the auto industry let that image fester over the long holiday weekend as the United Auto Workers Association agreed to freeze wages or renegotiate contracts to save people’s jobs.
Ultimately, 2 of the 3 CEOs agreed to take a pay cut – down to $1 a year – to get government bail-out money. That’s all fine and good, but what they should’ve done instead is put the private jets on eBay on November 20th a la Governor Sarah Palin. Or they could’ve donated it to a charity. Given it to the Detroit Lions for practice drills (not that it would help). Any of those things would’ve worked – would’ve told the American taxpayers that Detroit was really hurting and needed help.
The auto industry has an uphill battle to fight in the coming days, months, and years. This isn’t the first time they’ve gotten a bail-out. And they’re certainly not at the top of everyone’s list of favorites these days. Which means they’ll need a better line than, “It was certainly not our finest hour.”