Memo to Automakers Wagoner, Mulally & Nardelli: Fire Your PR People

How these three CEO's have acted is a classic teachable moment. They've practically written the curriculum for the class on how to alienate the American public by their actions.
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Of all the arrogant, crazy, mixed-up things we've ever seen in public relations, I think the behavior of the Big 3 Big Kahunas takes the cake. You don't have to be a PR genius to see the ginormous mistakes these three fellas made. Shame on the PR people who let these guys make them.

Here's what happened: Three business leaders came to Washington looking for a $25 billion bailout because, according to them, the country would not survive if these three American automakers didn't get the money.

Here's what we in the American public saw: Three obscenely well-paid CEO's flying to Washington in their private jets to ask for taxpayer money to bailout companies that they had driven, (pardon the pun), into bankruptcy, if not obsolescence. They had no plan. They had no vision of how they were going to make changes and turn their companies around. They had no way to promise that this would not happen again. No, they just put a big ol' hand out for a big ol' handout. And used the same mantra of extortion that Wall Street used: If you don't bail us out, the economy will collapse and millions of people will lose their jobs.

Now I don't know if it's the right thing to bail out the auto industry or not. There are plenty of smart economic brains out there to debate that concept, and I'm not one of them. But I do know Public Relations, and something this big needs the American public behind it, especially after we just spent $700 billion bailing Wall Street out and pretty much have seen no results from that. How these three CEO's have acted is a classic teachable moment. They've practically written the curriculum for the class on how to alienate the American public by their actions.

Here's what I would have told these guys if they had been my clients:

1. You Don't Fly Anywhere in Private Jets

Okay, look -- If you're trying to tell us that you just need taxpayer money to bridge the gap, and that you are actively working on digging the car companies out of the hole they are in, they you have to start the cutbacks with you. How can we possibly believe that you know how to streamline and cost-cut if you can't even see your own extravagance?

Rick Newman from US News and World Report puts it this way: "If you're asking for the people's money, you should be using the people's transportation."

According to Brian Ross and Joseph Rhee from ABC news, "Wagoner's private jet trip to Washington cost his ailing company an estimated $20,000 roundtrip. In comparison, seats on Northwest Airlines flight 2364 from Detroit to Washington were going online for $288 coach and $837 first class."

Doesn't matter what your reasons are for taking a private plane, no reason makes sense from a PR standpoint. Fire the consultant who didn't stop you from getting on that plane.

2. You Give Back Your Salary

You cannot tell me that the $25-$28 million a year that you each have been getting in pay and perks over the last few years is not enough to sustain you for the period of time it will take to turn these companies around. If you are really serious about making changes and effecting cutbacks, again, start with yourself. You say that a turn-around will be painful in these economic times, then be the first one in line to take some of the pain. It is obscene for you to come to Washington asking for taxpayer money when your paycheck is so high.

Our perception? If you were so good at what you did that you deserved $25M/year, then you wouldn't be in Washington asking for a handout. Fire the consultant who didn't advise you to stop taking a paycheck.

3. You Gather Up All the Leaders of Industry and Ask for Their Advice

Your company is in trouble. We want to know that you have exhausted all your possible resources before you come to the American taxpayer for a loan. Have you? We see no proof of that. We see business as usual and the same mismanagement that has gone on for years, if not decades. So call up all the smartest guys and gals you know and ask them for their advice. And then tell us you have done that so we have some security in knowing that the smartest brains around helped you come up with a plan.

Oh crap. A Plan! Which brings me to my next point.

4. You Come with a Plan for How the Bailout Will Allow You to Turn the Company Around.

Okay, this is where you need to fire not only your PR people, but your entire financial and operations management team. Who goes to the bank to ask for a loan without a business and marketing plan? You should have slid under the hearings table when the committee asked how you planned to turn the company around and what your plans were for the money.

This kinda goes back to point number two -- what are you doing for that $25M/year? You don't know that you need a plan? Or you are just too arrogant to think you need to share it with the people who are loaning you the money?

See, this point alone is why your PR people should be fired post-haste. You don't even have to be in public relations to see the problem of not having a plan. One of the HuffPo readers said it nicely in a comment to another post. JScott wrote: "Do you even know how to put together a PowerPoint presentation... I mean really -- I just went to the LA Auto Show and their full legion of new car puffery was there. If they [had] spent [at] least as much time on a decent presentation to Congress they just might have had the check in hand by now."

Fire the entire PR firm that let you walk into that hearings room without a well-articulated plan on what you will do to turn the company around, and how the taxpayer money will help make that happen.

Now, there are plenty of other things you three guys could do to win over our confidence and get us on your side to back a bailout plan. But these first mistakes are so significant, it will be extremely difficult to win us over, if you can at all.

So fellas, here's your first move: Fire the PR people. And feel free to email me for more ideas. Heck, in the spirit of showing you guys how it's done, I'll even consult for free. But only after you stop taking a paycheck.

To make it easier on the Big 3 Big Kahunas, Pam Atherton can be reached at Pam @

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