GM’s Female CEO Is Told To Lay Low On Press

Betsy Rothstein | Reporter

GM tried to build goodwill in 2013 with the public by hiring Mary Barra, the first female CEO in Big Three history. But they’re shuffling her into soft news spots, while the real auto industry stories are being fielded by Tim Solso and Daniel Amman — arguably the two men who are actually running the company.

Last Wednesday, Amman gave the keynote speech at the New York Auto Show.

Sources tell The Mirror that the GM Board “literally told Barra she is overexposed, and they want her to cool it on media appearances.”

As for the New York Auto Show – GM says Mary was “simply unavailable.”

In a March release, GM didn’t even include so much as a quote from the first woman automaker CEO. The headline read: “Women Driving Auto Industry’s Technology Advances.” The statement quoted three females — a software developer, a program manager and an engineer.

Hear Barra roar, huh?

In a time when women are blasting their male counterparts for lack of equal pay and relevance, there’s been an emerging trend out of GM’s PR shop, which is to largely silence the top female from playing a commanding role in the company’s hard news.

Sure, lots of companies and congressional aides shield their bosses from questionable press. There’s a reason NBC News Brian Williams went on shows like Letterman and The Daily Show. Or why first lady Michelle Obama did dance routines with Jimmy Fallon. Or why ex-Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) literally drove away from a CNN correspondent asking tough questions.

But with Barra, industry sources say the message seems to be don’t send a woman to do a man’s job.

“It should piss off auto media that GM is hiding its CEO, as much as it pissed off national political media that the Obama 2012 reelect gave all of them the finger,” said an industry observer who wished to remain anonymous.

GM’s Corporate News Director Pat Morrissey adamantly denied that the company has any strategy to hide Barra or publicly minimize her importance in any way.

“That is not an accurate summary of our strategy – Mary has done a variety of interviews – with a wide variety of media outlets — over the last six months….even more if you go back into the 4th quarter of 2014,” Morrissey wrote by email. “In terms of the New York Show – Mary was simply not available. Hope this helps….if you need a specific example – most recently Mary took the lead on our media announcement regarding the stockholder issue – clearly VERY hard news.”

Barra’s press does indicate some shielding. As soon as GM hired her, they quickly closed ranks around her, keeping her away from harder news stories for most of last year (save for one TIME cover story and her Matt Lauer interview, which some said was super sexist because he asked if she could be a good parent and a good exec. At the time, Lauer insisted that he’d have also asked a man those questions). The massive GM recalls thrust her onto Capitol Hill last year, and she couldn’t avoid the limelight entirely. But more often than not, they’ve got her doing more puffy, cakewalky type events as opposed to tough media.

A note about her absence at the New York auto show: Barra recently spoke at a private event at the Chicago Economic Club, sources tell The Mirror. “Still, that doesn’t explain why the CEO of America’s largest automaker was “unavailable” at 2nd largest trade show in country,” reasoned the aforementioned industry source.

Last year, Obama invited Barra as a guest at the 2014 State of the Union, where he held her up as a glass ceiling shatterer as he railed on gender parity in pay — only for the world to find out shortly thereafter, embarrassingly, that Barra was getting a fraction of her male counterparts in compensation.

Last fall, Fortune did a feature on Barra that had nothing to do with her automaking experience, or her plans as chief executive of arguably the world’s largest auto maker. In their “5 Things You Don’t Know About Mary Barro,” they site a former U.S. Army General who gives her his nod of approval. The promo for the listicle should read: ‘Stop talking about the recalls and learn why she is so awesome.’ Other messages from the feature: She believes in feedback; she doesn’t mind not being board chair and she’s not a consensus builder – it wastes her time.

Or how about this spin job on how the worst recall in recent history (which included many vehicles developed by GM when she was its global product chief) is a unique fixer-upper opportunity for Detroit’s new dame. Then story largely explains why she’s the right woman for the job, how she has little patience and how she changed the company’s 10 page dress code to two words: “Dress appropriately.”

If that wasn’t enough for Fortune, she also too part in their October, 2014 “Most Powerful Women” conference in Detroit.

Barra was later a panelist at a Clinton Global Initiative event. Subtext: Hillary’s going to break the glass ceiling, and here’s Mary Barra, who did the same thing in the auto industry.

Most recently she did an exclusive for something called “Refinery29.” Not only does it have nothing to do with making cars, but check out Refinery29’s About page — it’s a style pub: “Refinery29, the fastest growing independent fashion and style website in the United States, is a lifestyle platform that delivers nonstop inspiration to help women live a more stylish and creative life.”

They asked about her life wisdom — her parents told her to work hard and pursue math. They want to know what women should stop believing. She replies, “That you can’t have it all.” And “fun” for her is attending her children’s sports events.

GM’s strategy seems to hold her out as something other automakers don’t have, a woman CEO. Sure, they reap the low-hanging PR gains.

But the cost seems questionable, as much of the stuff they have her doing has almost nothing to do with making cars.

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