Larry P. Vellequette
Larry P. Vellequette
Chrysler Group reporter

CEO media scrums are as ineffective as they are dangerous

Twice this week, Barra was cornered by journalists shouting questions and jamming microphones, TV cameras and digital recorders in her face.
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Journalists chasing a meaty story can act like a pack of wild dogs sometimes.

They tear into the living flesh of their subject and rip it away, scurrying off to some more private place to process their information meal in peace.

For the most part, this process is figurative. No one’s flesh is ripped away.

But this week in New York -- and earlier this year at the Detroit auto show after landing her new job -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra and her entourage must have realized how injured wildebeests feel as they are set upon by jackals.

There’s a very real reason for the intense media interest in GM in recent weeks: The automaker is in trouble, a great deal of trouble, over its actions concerning faulty ignition switches in millions of cars. The story warrants broad coverage and GM deserves every bit of the scrutiny it receives.

But forget for a moment what Barra had to say. My issue here is with what is known as the “scrum”: a term borrowed from rugby and used by the automotive press to describe a type of full-contact press conference.

Scrums are the physical cornering of an executive in a space the size of a small closet. If you’ve ever seen a rugby match, or watched Australian Rules football on TV, “scrum” is a perfect descriptor.

Twice this week, Barra was cornered by journalists shouting questions and jamming microphones, TV cameras and digital recorders in her face. At one point, Barra, her security detail and a few top-level GM executives were backed into an alcove in New York.

According to those in the melee, Mark Reuss, GM’s product chief, physically intervened between Barra and hundreds of journalists to provide at least a few inches of separation. In doing so, he became one of the nation’s best-paid security guards, at least for a few minutes.

What happened in New York has nothing to do with the fact that Barra is a woman, and everything to do with the fact that she is GM’s CEO. Her predecessors at GM, as well as her counterparts at Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group and other automakers, also have been subjected to scrums.

For their part, journalists take no pleasure in the physicality of the scrum. Most of us hate them. According to those on the scene in New York, a reporter from Bloomberg caught a TV camera in the eye during one of the Barra tussles.

Personally, I’ve been shoved, elbowed, kicked and bumped in scrums, which are far worse if the executives being questioned don’t speak loud enough to be heard on the digital recorders being jammed in their faces. The worst part of the scrum -- along with any physical abuse-- is that it’s a horrible way to communicate.

During the past year, the communications folks at Chrysler have figured this out. CEO Sergio Marchionne still gets “scrummed” whenever he wanders into the path of journalists. But when possible, Chrysler seems willing to set up a microphone and a speaker and turn what would be a dangerous scrum into a regular press conference.

Reporters have to ask questions and will go to almost any length to do so. But providing a little infrastructure when such opportunities arise makes for a far more orderly question-and-answer session, without the fear of physical harm.

Chrysler’s is a welcome practice that other automakers would be wise to adopt.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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