General Motors: Why Euphemisms Don’t Work

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.53.32 AMGeneral Motors (GM) continues to take its lumps in the media, social media and in popular culture (a recent spoof on Saturday Night Live) related to the recall of more than 2 million cars, the Chevy Cobalt, for faulty ignition switches. The issues were first uncovered in 2001, but recalls didn’t begin until earlier this year. One of the key factors that prompted congressional hearings is misleading language that didn’t elevate the faulty ignition switches to a “critical fix.”

In particular, an article in Forbes points to a culture where confusing or vague language (hint, euphemisms) may be responsible for the inaction of leadership within the company.

Excerpt from article:

The problem with the ignition switch had been labeled as a “customer convenience” issue. Those two words left people with the impression that the problem simply annoyed some drivers instead of giving GM experts and managers the more accurate assessment that the problem was a major safety defect that could potentially kill people.

During the same decade that the Cobalt issue had been largely ignored, GM issued hundreds of recalls at “great expense” to the company because those problems were framed as “safety defects” that prompted immediate action. The two words—safety defects—triggered a fast response. The Cobalt’s “customer convenience” issue led to “no sense of urgency, right to the very end.” 

“GM employees were trained to use certain language when speaking about safety issues. Instead of “problem,” employees were instructed to use “issue, condition, or matter.” Instead of “defect,” employees said, “Does not perform to design.”

Think about it this way. On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell contacted the NASA control center and said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” He didn’t say, “We have a matter that’s not performing to design.”

GM has of course made changes due to the latest black eye. It created the Speak Up For Safety program, designed to encourage employees to identify, report, and elevate safety issues, and train them how to do so.

As communications professionals, many times we’re all guilty of “corporate speak” that is laced with jargon or has been edited by committee, so much that the true message is lost. Following are some tips for communicating in a crisis that we share with our clients:

  • Be targeted: Focus messages on the target audience(s) to ensure that what the team is communicating reaches the right people.
  • Be prompt: This shows the company is addressing the issues and can diffuse a negative situation from spiraling by presenting the facts early on.
  • Be concise but comprehensive: Crisis communication should be compact, delivering as much information as possible in a small space and time.
  • Be transparent: Perhaps more so than any other content you create, crisis communication must be honest and clear if your audiences are going to trust the organization to get through the event/situation.
  • Be clear: Articulate what your company/organization is doing and, when possible, how long the process might take. The latter can be difficult to estimate, so don’t commit to a timeframe if you aren’t sure of it. If you know a solution is not imminent, it’s best to be honest with stakeholders about that fact.
  • Be compassionate: Regardless of the source of the problem, with most issues you have let your customers or employees down; acknowledge this, and then get to work making sure it doesn’t happen again.

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