GM’s 69 words to avoid

General Motors has been working hard to distinguish between the new GM – warm, responsive, caring and responsible – and the old GM – strapped for cash, callous and clueless. The company, faced with massive liabilities and the recall of 2.6 million cars,  is walking a tightrope, trying to be new GM, repair the defects in old cars, and respond to at least 13 deaths attributed to those defects.

A complicating factor is a leak of a document created during the old GM days. It’s a slide from a 2008 PowerPoint presentation directing employees not to use negative, emotion-laden words when discussing automobiles affected by recalls. You can see the slide below. (Click on it to enlarge.)  And you can see how John Oliver ripped the company a new one in the clip above.

Here’s the thing: Even during the old GM days, most companies knew enough not to let something as ridiculous as the list of 69 words appear anywhere in public. If it can be leaked, it will.

It seems to indicate a need to be obsessively specific and, more important, a view of employees that says they can’t figure out for themselves that a phrase like “rolling sarcophagus” isn’t a good way to talk about your product. A few, not-so-extreme spoken examples in group meetings, along with an admonition never to be negative, would have gotten the point across.

I don’t blame GM for trying to establish consistency around messaging, and even to give some specific examples about how and how not to speak about a problem. This effort, however, was over the top, and it’s receiving the ridicule it deserves.

I actually own a GM product – a 2011 Chevy Equinox – and I’ve been very happy with it. I’m rooting for the company to succeed and to overcome its latest problems. To do so, however, its engineers and its PR people both need to rededicate themselves to excellence and to putting its customers and their families first.

words to avoid

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