Two decades later and they still haven't learned the lesson of Michael Moore

Open letter to auto industry executives:

You guys need a reality check. You have been spending way too much time in your gated Grosse Pointe communities and not enough time experiencing life the way most of us live it.

The Washington Post yesterday reported that despite the 24 daily nonstop commercial flights between Detroit and Washington, the CEOs of the three failing US automakers chose to fly on individual private planes to a hearing where they asked taxpayers to pony up $25 billion to paper over their wretched record of mismanaging formerly great American industrial companies.

There are frequently very good business reasons why it makes sense for corporate executives to use private aircraft to go somewhere. More control over the scheduling, getting somewhere quickly in a crisis, and so on. But this was an incredible display of what the Post politely called "tone deafness" to the climate in Washington, and it may very well have killed the industry’s chances of getting a dime from lawmakers.

It is a direct parallel to the disastrous tone deafness of an earlier GM CEO, Roger Smith, when his office was approached by a young unknown documentary film maker from Flint, who wanted to discuss with Smith the impending plant closures and layoffs at GM’s Flint complex, which was going to wreak havoc on the Flint economy.

Despite pleas from some of GM’s very bright PR counselors at the time (I know this from speaking to them directly), Smith refused — against PR advice — to meet with the filmmaker, and Michael Moore’s movie, "Roger and Me" went on to launch Moore’s career in ambush documentaries.

The whole premise of the movie was "Roger Smith doesn’t care enough to meet with me, and he’s now trying to hide from me." Smith, with his aristocratic arrogance, played right into the typecasting he was being shoehorned into by Moore.

If he had been honest, met with the filmmaker, explained the difficult decisions, maybe, just maybe, it would have damaged the premise of the movie. Instead, he just helped confirm Moore’s worst caricature of the GM CEO, and severely damaged the firm’s reputation.

KEY TAKEAWAY FOR CORPORATE EXECUTIVES: Be honest, if you don’t know, say you don’t know. Stop pretending you have this economic thing figured out any better than your hourly workers. We’re all in this together whether you like it or not — and your behavior up to now is clearly indicating that you don’t like it and really do think you are different from the rest of us.

And so today, we have this awful PR disaster that may very well wreck the chances for restructuring this industry any time soon.

You have to think that the veteran PR people at these auto companies MUST have told the CEOs that flying their $10,000/hour jets into DC would be an image problem. It certainly didn’t get past the members of Congress who grilled them, according to Dana Milbank’s column in the Post. As Milbank reports:

"There’s a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hands," Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) advised the pampered executives at a hearing yesterday. "It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high-hat and tuxedo. . . . I mean, couldn’t you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?"

If the miserable consequences of this error in judgment weren’t so appalling for thousands of innocent auto workers, Michael Moore might even be chuckling, with a slight hint of schadenfreude. But I have a feeling he’s punching holes in the wall with his fist.

And probably so are the PR folks at these companies, because saying "I told you so!" isn’t a real career option for them right now.

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