Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian
When automakers needed a helping hand, they also brought a silver spoon.
“It’s not about the destination,” people like to say, “it’s about the journey.” And rarely was that more true than on November 18, 2008. That was the day the CEOs of Ford, GM and Chrysler traveled to Washington to ask Congress to give them a $25 billion bailout, money they said was desperately needed to stay in business.
The only problem – actually, one of several problems – was that each exec traveled to Washington on a private jet. As one blogger noted, the tab to fly private was about $20,000 — more than 20 times higher than a first-class plane ticket. It was not the best optics, and the media made sure everyone knew it.
“Big Three auto CEOs flew private jets to ask for taxpayer money,” CNN reported. Fox News wrote, “Recipients of eight-figure bonuses in 2007, the corporate cowboys used their executive perks … to arrive in style as they went begging before Congress.” And a legislator commented, “It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo.” When you have someone from Congress criticizing your lack of fiscal responsibility, you know things are not good.
To their defense, the automakers came to their defense. GM’s spokesman provided a statement asserting, “Making a big to-do about this when issues vital to the jobs of millions of Americans are being discussed in Washington is diverting attention away from a critical debate.”
The Chrysler spokesperson, meanwhile, said the private jet was done as a safety precaution. This may have been true: If the angry taxpayers had known the bailout-seeking CEO was on board, there’s no telling how they might have responded. And the Ford spokesperson merely referred reporters to the company’s travel policy, which, I understand, begins “Don’t drive a Ford.”
The CEOs were properly chastened, and when GM’s exec make a second trip to D.C. in December, The New York Times noted that he had done, “the Kerouac thing.” As the GM spokesman thoughtfully explained, “You have to be sensitive to the symbolism.” The spokesman also noted that GM would be getting rid of its seven jets and, in an additional gesture of shrewd thinking, had scrapped plans to reintroduce the beloved Pontiac Aztek.
Later in December, President Bush signed a relief package worth $24.9 billion. GM and Chrysler would still enter bankruptcy, but better times were ahead – and then, worse times, like Ford’s harassment allegations and Chevy’s faulty ignition switches. With all the wrong turns that have been taken, it’s no wonder the automakers created backup cameras.
All of which is a good reminder for PR pros: The next time your client wants to go through the looking glass, you might have them look in the mirror first.