As she faced congressional questioning Tuesday on Capitol Hill, it wasn’t just what General Motors CEO Mary Barra said that earned her high marks, but also how she said it.
Legal and image consultants believe Barra made a sympathetic witness before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel, which is investigating why it took GM a decade to recall 2.6 million vehicles over a faulty ignition switch that the automaker has linked to 13 deaths.
“She came across as very poised and confident,” said Susan Dwyer, a litigation partner at Herrick, Feinstein LLP in New York. “She didn’t overstate anything. She didn’t take anybody on. She made sure she stopped talking when they were talking, even when they were interrupting her.”
Dwyer, who spent years defending Bridgestone/Firestone in litigation over accusations of defective tires on the Ford Explorer, says composure and honesty come through clearly under questioning.
“Having tried to prepare a lot of difficult witnesses to testify in the past so that they have some rapport with juries, I can tell you that you really can’t change the spots on a leopard,” Dwyer said. “If someone’s going to be put off by questioning, their body language will still tell you that they’re not happy with the answer they’re giving, even if they were coached to give it.
“And I didn’t see that in Mary Barra. I’m convinced she was answering every question honestly.”
Richard Torrenzano, a reputation and crisis control consultant, said Barra is “doing and saying all the right things” as Congress bears down on GM.
“She’s coming across as very believable and sympathetic,” says Torrenzano, co-author of the reputation management book Digital Assassination. “That’s going to be important. This investigation is going to get worse, and some very difficult questions still have to be answered -- including how will the victims’ families be treated, and how are the owners of recalled cars treated?
“Frankly, I don’t believe GM had a lot of public goodwill coming into this. So it’s important to be honest and transparent,” he said.
More than one observer of Tuesday’s congressional examination noted that Barra received a more congenial interrogation than either of the Toyota executives who were called to Capitol Hill in 2010 over safety issues or the Detroit 3 executives who underwent public questioning over financial woes in 2008.
“I think Congress is taking her at her word when she says that GM is sorry and wants to get to the bottom of the safety problem,” says William Holstein, a journalist and author of the 2009 book Why GM Matters.
“How Mary Barra comes across to the public is very important. She represents the New GM. She represents the perception that GM has changed. If she stumbles and falls in her testimony, that perception of the new GM would crash and burn along with her.”