What Detroit’s Big 3 Can Learn From Big Tobacco

Remember those magical lights that (according to advertising) would help you live a life of wealth, opulence and excess on the French Riviera? Those were the days of Peter Stuyvesant and as a child growing up in South Africa, I would be exposed to these commercials when I went to see age appropriate movies.

Today they’re called “cancer sticks” and every single box of taxed cigarettes you buy contains a succinct, eloquent and not-so-subtle friendly message: smoking kills. It used to be a little more esoteric and ambiguous, warning us about our “general” health, but soon went straight for the jugular by talking about birth defects and finally, the coup de grace (literally): death.

Over the course of the last month or so, we’ve seen the Big 3 make their pilgrimage to Washington — first in their private corporate jets and then in their hybrids (John Candy would be proud) — to make their cases for a $25 billion bailout. Throughout this process, they’ve continued to advertise as if everything were just hunky dory.

Great news people: The Chevy Red Tag Sale is back or what about Chrysler’s Year-End-Sell-A-Thon? Purchase low today because the entire damn company might be gone tomorrow.

If that isn’t a disconnect, I don’t know what is.

Let me be clear: I’m not jumping on the band(station)wagon by bashing the automakers. What I am saying is that now — more than ever — if what is good for GM is good for America, then the Big 3 need to prove it. And fast.

Pretending that everything is just business as usual is delusional at best and negligent at worst. What is required now is direct, honest, open and authentic conversation with scared employees, affected partners, cautious buyers and skeptical critics.

Ex-crayonista Scott Monty, who heads up Ford’s social media practice, is doing just that with frequent and refreshingly honest commentary and dialogue on his personal blog and via his Twitter account. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. The entire company needs to rally around these kinds of efforts to elevate this kind of a commitment from an individual to a group level; from a tactical one-off to a strategic, organizational and cultural imperative.

So should the Red Tag Sales and Year-End-Sell-A-Thons (or at least the advertising thereof) continue? Yes, but with an important change. I would institute a warning band at the bottom of every ad (television, radio, print, online, et al.) that is less of a “smoking kills” ultimatum and more of a “We’re in trouble, but we’re going to be OK. Find out the facts and how you can help: Join the conversation at xyz.com.”

Why not vest the public in the future of the Big 3 automakers? Who in their right mind wants to stand by and watch nearly 2 million jobs disappear from an already ailing economy. After 9/11, many customers of Southwest either did not claim refunds on flights not flown or proactively sent money to the airline (“You need it more than we do”). Where’s that loyalty when you need it?

Quite clearly, the solution does not lie in ignorance; nor does it lie in ignoring the problem and “hoping” it goes away. There’s a tremendous amount of trust that has either been eroded or destroyed and which needs to be rebuilt and earned back. How does one go about earning back trust? The answer is one relationship at a time.

As outlined in my book, Join the Conversation, the three-pillared approach of community, dialogue and partnership presents a potent combination of intense commitment and transparent demonstration required to begin restoring the bonds that have been until recently the backbone of the U.S. economy.