How to take ownership of a problem you have inherited and how to respond online

In this day in age, you say one dumb thing and it can be misconstrued in so many ways.   The language you use, the tone and voice plays a critical element in how you, your brand or company is viewed by the public eye.  Take for instance GM CEO Mary Barra, who in early 2014 was faced with addressing a problem she didn’t ask for – but was tasked with putting the fire out.  To get up to speed with what Barra had to deal with, click on this link to get the back story.  It was this video above that really showed she was willing to admit fault on behalf of the company she was now figure head.  How she responded was nothing short of brilliant and hit a lot of key points.

Assessment of the company’s tone, voice and language selection

GM CEO Mary Barra’s video message to GM employees on March 17, 2014 addressed the ignition switch recall crisis. It was the first communication Barra addressed on the recall issue.

In regards to her tone, Mary was transparent with her plan to combat the challenges that awaited her company.  Her tone demonstrated awareness of the issue, as well as determination with proceeding with progress steps moving forward.

Her voice was authentic, her authoritarian presence was felt.  Barra acknowledged the severity of the issue at stake, while providing a path of strategies for her team to implement.   Her voice was confident, stern and demonstrated leadership qualities.

The language presented was done with a formal tone.  She did not use complex vocabulary or super detailed insights, but rather focused on an overview plan instead.  Barra spoke in a language that all employees of GM could understand – all the way from the top-level executives to the hard-working men and women staff on the assembly lines.

Tone, voice and language selection as I understand it

I thought her tone was consistent throughout the video communication.  As for her voice, I was not fully convinced she came across as sincere as she should have, it sounded like she was most likely reading from a teleprompter.  And for her language, I thought it was appropriate for an internal communication that was sent to staff and would eventually be picked up by news media outlets.

If I wrote her online apology letter, it would look like this…

I would like to take this opportunity to address the recent announcement of General Motors’ ignition switch recall.   It is with a heavy heart that I sincerely apologize to each and every one of you who have been affected, particularly the families who have lost their loved ones in automobile accidents caused from our vehicles.  We here at GM are committed to ensuring that your concerns will be addressed with compassion and understanding.

Acknowledging Issues

In admitting our mistakes, moving forward I vow to be transparent with all of you.   It is not in my character to walk away from a problem, but to rather face the challenges up front and seek resolution.   I was first notified of the ignition switch defect on January 14, 2014.  NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) was notified on February 7, 2014 that an ignition switch defect existed in vehicles dating back to 2001, with a mandatory recall of 619,122 cars.   More recalls will be anticipated.  We are currently preparing to launch a detailed investigative report.  Please be advised that the estimated time to complete this investigation can take up to seven months.

Taking care of the families

As of this writing, there have been 13 reported deaths and 47 crashes.  Our goal is to ensure that another fatality or injury under this circumstance never happens again.  To the families who have been severely impacted, I have appointed mediator attorney Ken Feinberg to spearhead the creation of a compensation program.  I can confirm that there will be no financial cap associated to this program.  More details are to follow shortly.  I am also making myself available to meet with the families affected by this tragedy.  As a mother of two children, I cannot fathom the pain and suffering you have endured.  It is my commitment to bridge the line of communication and address all of your concerns.

Ensuring customer concerns

To our existing GM customers, we are determined to use this crisis to accelerate change within our company.  The economic decision to keep a flawed component in production while knowing it did not meet our standards, is unacceptable.  We can no longer sweep a problem under the rug and expect it to disappear.  A culture change is required.  With my leadership combined with the help of all our employees, we will learn from this tragedy and grow as a unit.  Our priority concern is the motor vehicle safety of all GM drivers.

In conclusion, it will take more than issuing an infinite volume of apologies to resolve this situation.  I am committed to finding solutions and instilling the appropriate strategies to prevent this from occurring in the future.   I have been a part of this company for 20 plus years, witnessing its highest successes and I will be here during its darkest hours.  I assure you that General Motors is determined to search for answers in this dilemma, make improvements to our work culture, and ensure the safety of all our drivers worldwide.


Mary Barra
CEO, General Motors

Mary Barra image credit Marvin Shaouni for Fortune

Closing note

It has been three years since Barra had to deal with the GM ignition switch fiasco.   The fearless leader proved that she could over come the odds and restore faith of the GM brand in the American car market.  For her leadership efforts, she has been named Fortune’s Most Powerful Woman for the third consecutive year.  A feat like that is accomplished only through proper communication, ensuring transparency with your audience and delivering on your promises.