The struggle for the hearts and minds of General Motors' shareholders and directors could be messy.
GM CEO Rick Wagoner and Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn have agreed to say little or nothing about the 90-day study now under way, or whether an alliance among the three automakers is feasible.
But if the last couple of weeks were an indication, the next three months will be as much a tug-of-war of images as it will be a quiet period of fact-finding.
Last week, the advantage went to Ghosn.
He did a series of interviews in which he came across as upbeat, thoughtful, cordial, decisive, personable and reasonable. The visual image of The Great Ghosn was hammered home during a live interview on CNBC in which he answered and deflected questions for more than half an hour.
Looking like a prizefighter
Ghosn was sartorially resplendent in a dark, well-tailored suit. Even the B-roll that CNBC shot of him striding down a hallway made him seem like a champion prizefighter headed to the ring for a title bout.
He knew what he was doing.
By contrast, the footage of Wagoner that CNBC used to fill out the report was from what we call a curbside interview, which did not flatter the GM CEO. A CNBC camera crew had caught up with Wagoner in a building or parking garage somewhere. The lighting was miserable, which made Wagoner -- who wasn't made up for TV -- look pale and haggard. The sound bites made Wagoner seemed unprepared for the questions.
Playing the Wagoner tape during the Ghosn interview was a blow to the GM chief's image. It was like the oft-cited Kennedy-Nixon debates from the 1960 presidential campaign in which a less-known but media-savvy Sen. John Kennedy established himself as a bona fide contender.
Kennedy -- with a brother-in-law in show biz -- wore makeup and controlled his body language so that even under hot klieg lights on black-and-white TV, he looked calm, cool and collected. Meanwhile, thanks to a 5-o'clock shadow and no makeup, Vice President Richard Nixon appeared sweaty, pale and shifty.
We political science majors know that because of that TV image -- plus organized voter fraud in Chicago -- Nixon lost in 1960.
You can bet that Wagoner's handlers know that story, too. This week in London he seemed better coached. News dispatches from the London auto show described Wagoner as upbeat and quoted him saying GM's second-quarter results will show his turnaround is working. And that he has no intention of handing over his CEO title, even if GM makes a deal with Renault and Nissan.
In the next three months, Ghosn and Wagoner will each have opportunities to shape and reinforce their images during interviews, speeches and public appearances. Even so, these are just preliminary rounds.
The ultimate showdown of images will come when Ghosn meets GM's board, which may vote on the alliance.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at [email protected]