GM lobbyists go into full crisis mode over layoffs
GM lobbyists go into full crisis mode over layoffs
BY ALEX GANGITANO – 12/04/18 06:00 AM EST 807
Rep. Tim Ryan (D) first heard General Motors would be closing the Lordstown plant in his Ohio district directly from a company government relations official.
The lawmaker immediately got in his car and drove to the union hall to be with the plant’s workers the day of the announcement.
News that the iconic American automaker would be shuttering four plants in the U.S. and laying off 15,000 employees has sparked bipartisan anger in Washington and sent the company’s public relations team into crisis mode.
A GM spokesperson told The Hill the company was in touch with lawmakers and theadministration.
“GM has been blowing us up in terms of communications,” a senior aide for a GOP office told The Hill. “They are in scramble mode.”
Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell (D) heard from others about the closures before receiving a call from a GM official. Dingell has long ties with the company. She was president of the GM Foundation and head of public affairs before leaving in 2009.
“I don’t need to a phone call from [CEO] Mary Barra,” Dingell told The Hill. “I do need facts from those that have them.”
The rollout of the company’s layoff plans was only the start of what will be a daunting challenge for General Motors’ PR and lobbying operations. Lawmakers are pressing the company to keep plants open, and President Trump is openly floating ways to punish the automaker.
“All in all, they’re in a really tough position and I don’t think there’s any miracle thing they could have done not to be criticized in D.C.,” Mike Murphy, a communications strategist with Revolution Agency, told The Hill.
GM has a formidable influence operation — the company has spent $6.14 million on its Washington lobbying so far in 2018.
The company retains Roberti Global on a $240,000 contract for the year, with firm chairman Vincent Roberti working on the account, according to disclosure filings.
GM also retains the S-3 Group on a $150,000 contract, with Matthew Bravo, who worked in House Republican leadership under former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), when he was majority leader, and under Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
The Washington Tax & Public Policy Group has a $140,000 contract, with its founder Gregory Nickerson and Kelli Briggs and Jan Fowler working on the GM account.
The Polaris-Hutton Group has a $120,000 contract, with firm founder Daniel Gans heading the account. Others with accounts include the boutique firm Fritts Group, DS2 Group, Hance Scarborough, Susan Nelson of Navigators Global and Williams Group founder Michael Williams. Firms on retainer declined to comment on the record to The Hill.
GM has also spent big in the recent midterm election cycle. The General Motors Company PAC spent just more than $3.7 million on the 2018 cycle and more than $1.2 million went to federal candidates, with 56 percent to Republicans and 43 percent to Democrats.
That clout will now be tested as GM works to calm the storm and heal relations with lawmakers, especially those affected by the closures.
Dingell told The Hill that since the announcement she has been “pretty vocal and they know.”
“Detroit needs to understand people on the Hill … they don’t want platitudes from Washington offices, they want facts from Michigan,” she said.
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters (D) spoke on the phone with Barra the day of the announcement. He expressed disappointment in the decision and pressed her to do more for affected workers, a spokesperson for his office told The Hill.
GM has tried to tamp down the fury over its planned cuts, insisting that it is essential to its long-term future and that many workers will find other roles at the company.
“Many of the U.S. workers impacted by these actions will have the opportunity to shift to other GM plants where we will need more employees to support growth in trucks, crossovers and SUVs,” a GM spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.
But dealing with the fallout has been no easy task.
One lawmaker from an affected state learned the news from the media and only received a call from a GM official 12 hours later.
“That is not the norm, and I would describe it as being irritating that we learned about it in the press,” a spokesperson for the lawmaker told The Hill. “We did not appreciate learning about this announcement in the press and in talking to several other members of Congress’s offices, they were frustrated about the way … [the announcement] was rolled out.”
Trump has also been taking shots at the company.
The president has said he personally told Barra that GM “better get back in” Ohio soon.
“I told them, ‘You’re playing around with the wrong person,’ ” he added.
Trump has floated new auto tariffs and cutting back federal subsidies for GM’s electric cars if the automaker doesn’t change course.
The controversy is even uniting political rivals. Trump spoke with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D)on the phone last week about how to keep GM jobs in his state.
Brown is pushing Congress to pass his bill, the American Cars, American Jobs Act, introduced in August. It would encourage customers to buy American-made cars and close tax loopholes for companies moving jobs overseas.
Despite the intense blowback, Tim LaPira, a political scientist at James Madison University, said GM likely mobilized its team well in advance.
“Before GM is going to go make a huge decision like this that they know is going to have real economic, real social and real political ramifications,” said LaPira. “The lobbyists were brought in already.”
Barra is also coming to Washington this week to meet with Brown and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
A lobbyist with experience working in crisis situations told The Hill that going forward, GM’s priorities are to shore up its allies and avoid fanning the flames.
“When you have a client in crisis mode, the first order of business is to help the client figure out who their natural allies are, and then to reach out to those allies to arm them with the facts,” the lobbyist said.
“You aren’t going to be able to make the problem just disappear, so the focus needs to be on doing what can be done to contain the problem and keep it from spreading or creating lasting damage.”
Murphy said GM’s lobbyists will be “caught in the middle” as the company takes a public battering.
Explaining to the American public and elected officials that the cuts are necessary for the long-term health of the company would be a hard sell, he said.
“The people who run GM, Mary Barra and her staff, they got to plan to endure the long-term success of the company with a huge cloud of industry disruption on the horizon,” said Murphy.
“They know all this. The politicians don’t.”
Whether the company will be able to successfully do that in the face of its toughest crisis in years remains to be seen.
“It’s hard to be a GM lobbyist,” said Murphy.
“You’re dealing with the short-term people and the Washington second-guessing kicks in.”