Really Owning a Crisis

Mary Barra took responsibility for GM's mistakes, telling employees, "People were hurt and died in our cars." 

Mary Barra took responsibility for GM's mistakes, telling employees, "People were hurt and died in our cars." 

Crisis response gurus offer plenty of advice about owning a crisis, but there are too few high-profile examples of people following that advice. General Motors CEO Mary Barra has provided a great example.

"People were hurt and died in our cars," Barra told GM employees, as reported by The Detroit News.  "We didn't do our job, and as part of our apology to the victims, we promise to take responsibility for our actions."

Check. Check. Check.

This is the CEO of a major U.S. corporation speaking, not a PR flunky or a third vice president.

Barra makes a simple, candid declaration about corporate failure that caused people to lose their lives.

She offers an apology tied to tangible restitution to the victims of that corporate failure.

Yes, GM just reached a $900 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to end a criminal investigation. However, that doesn't detract from her statement. It might even enhance it.

GM is admitting its wrong, agreeing to make it right with those most impacted and taking actions to prevent such neglect and customer indifference from occurring again. Barra previously had fired 15 GM employees and disciplined five others for "incompetence and neglect." Under Barra, the automaker has attempted to change its internal culture regarding safety. In the settlement, the company agreed to an independent monitor of GM's safety procedures.

This isn't the first time Barra has expressed contrition for the ignition defect that has been linked to 124 deaths and nearly 300 injuries. But it perhaps is the clearest, most resonant statement she has made – and one that serves as an excellent example of what it means to own a crisis.

Make Your Apology Faultless

People make mistakes, sometimes really big ones. Owning your mistakes is one path to redemption. Compounding your mistakes is the road to perdition. 

GM is a perfect case in point. After failing to notify GM car owners of faulty ignition switches for nearly a decade, which resulted in numerous deaths, GM compounded the problem by sending belated recall notices to the survivors of victims. Its careless follow-through generated more ire, louder congressional hearings and car buyer doubts.

In the newspaper world, there was a standing order for staff to pay special attention to any correction going into print. You would be surprised how often corrections are muffed, enraging people who already were miffed. Correcting a correction is the work of fools. 

Nothing undermines an apology more than an apology followed by another faux pas. The second flub tells people your apology wasn't sincere, or at least sincere enough to bother to double-check your words. What you intended as remorse comes across as indifference or insensitivity.