Perhaps CEO Mary Barra should have known better. At the NADA/J.D. Power Automotive Forum on Tuesday, the day preceding the opening press day of the auto show, Barra began a speech by saying that "it's really great to be in front of an automotive experience," drawing an obvious contrast to her early April appearances before two hostile congressional committees.
Barra saluted the audience for "your love of cars" and noted its recognition of the "privilege you get to work in this business." She seemed to be saying that she was pleased to be among friends.
She quickly noted GM's recent market and product successes, among them, she said, "Chevrolet has the strongest lineup in its history, from Spark to Impala." But she acknowledged that the successes have been "overshadowed by the intensity of the recall coverage."
That intensity was underscored minutes later. As she sought to exit at the conclusion of her appearance, Barra was mobbed by media, including camera people who battled one another for position and reporters who hurled questions, none of them remotely product-related.
According to Forbes (Its reporter managed to get close enough to hear Barra), she pleaded with the camera people, "Guys, please don't push each other," while Mark Reuss, GM's global product development chief, used his body to try to protect his boss from being trampled.
Barra had also been mobbed at the Detroit Auto Show in January, but that was just weeks after she was named as GM's first woman CEO. This time, Barra was not so much a novelty as she was one more taciturn CEO playing defense, hoping that a crisis would pass. It seemed clear, from her earlier remarks and from her struggle to get to an exit, that Barra had not expected such a mob scene at a supposedly receptive event.
The bulk of Barra's appearance was consumed in a question-and-answer period with Jason Stein, Automotive News publisher and editor. He interspersed recall questions with state-of-GM questions. Barra said she had not expected the overwhelming attention at the Detroit Auto Show. "There are a number of women in very significant roles (so) I was surprised by it," she said.
Asked about the contrast between her trips to Washington for President Obama's State of the Union address, when she was seated with Michelle Obama, and being grilled by Congress, Barra responded: "That's life. No one leads a charmed life ... My father was a die maker for 39 years." As for appearing before Congress, she said, "I understand people have their jobs to do. It's probably not on my top 10. But I respect them."
In testifying before a hostile Congress, it cannot be said that Barra did well or that Barra did poorly. It is impossible to do well in such a situation. GM's conduct seems to have been reprehensible, both in its reaction to known ignition switch failures and in its harsh courtroom tactics in cases where plaintiffs lost family members. Nobody condemns bad conduct better than our Congress.