Podcast Guest: Jackie Erickson, communications and government affairs expert
What’s at stake:
The fate of Cruise hangs on many factors, including General Motors’ leadership, money and its commitment to safety. But the restoration of Cruise’s credibility must start inside, with its own employees.
Much ink has been spent on what Cruise said or didn’t say to regulators, press and the world before it waved the white flag and took its national fleet of 400 robotaxis off the road.
Monday morning quarterbacks, inevitably, spouted a chorus of “woulda’s, coulda’s and shoulda’s,” mostly justified by Cruise’s almost obsessive push to quickly scale its robotaxi business.
Largely ignored in these critiques, however, is Cruise’ internal communication strategy.
There is no way of knowing what’s going on at Cruise internally today. But it’s easy to imagine the deep disillusionment among people who have worked so long on this project. They need a little compassion, a little more guidance, a new moral compass and, above all, honest answers to their questions from the management.
Questions like these:
How is the company communicating with employees now, and what’s the message?
Is the crisis facing Cruise today a fixable problem? If yes, how can Cruise employees help? If no, who goes, and who stays?
As senior executives regroup and reassess and plan, are their decisions in alignment? Are they telling the same story to Cruise’s employees?
Meet Jackie Erickson
As we were exploring the Cruise dilemma, the Ojo-Yoshida Report had the good fortune to talk with Jackie Erickson, a communications and government affairs expert.
Erickson’s experience ranges from serving on the staff of US Senator Bob Casey as Southwestern Pennsylvania regional director (Developed communication and policy strategies with federal, state and local entities) to working as director of communications and government affairs at several robotics companies, including Astrobotic, Marbel and Optimus Ride. She was also a senior communications director at Edge Case Research and senior manager of government affairs at Magna.
During the interview, Erickson made clear that she has no inside knowledge of the goings-on at Cruise. But years of work at robotics companies have allowed her to observe similar crises among the employees of AV companies, some of which eventually folded or got acquired.
Internal communications tend to be overshadowed — or overlooked — by the sort of external publicity which, when successful, might generate the media coverage that makes a corporation look almost glamorous.
But the real test of any company’s openness, honesty, and transparency is internal communication — what goes on within the family.
Quick, clear, consistent
Citing her experience, Erickson stressed that, in talking to employees, time is of the essence. “You need to be very quick, clear and consistent.”
Some employees are grief-stricken (“my code was in that vehicle”). Many worry primarily about their future (“are we damaged goods?”). Meanwhile a CEO might focus on his image, wondering how his decisions will be judged by others, Erickson explained.
Amidst the turmoil, there is one absolute taboo, said Erickson. “People are going to want to play the blame game. You don’t have time for blame. You must move forward.”
For top management, she added, two steps are vitally important. “First, you need to make sure your employees have an open line of communication. Second, they must know they can be heard, and have an opportunity to ask questions.”
And if top management does not know the answer, “It’s OK to say that they don’t know,” Erickson said.
She concluded: “In the end, none of this will work unless you are genuine, and you are empathetic to what people are feeling at the time of this crisis. The employees need to feel that they’re valued, that they’re appreciated, and that their team has their back.”
A recent New York Times’ article noted that Cruise has hired a law firm to investigate its response to its robotaxi problems, including interaction with regulators, law enforcement and the media. Cruise has also hired a consulting firm to evaluate its software systems, the report said.
Some media reports are already speculating about a shakeup in Cruise’s top management.
These might be all necessary moves.
New management might help with external communications, if only to apply fresh lipstick to the pig. Regaining the trust of Cruise’s remaining team might be a taller order.
Internal communications matter. Top management’s words and deeds have the power to ultimately motivate employees to stick around and rally ’round a new game plan.’ In the end, the people inside the company are the key to making or breaking the future of Cruise.
Junko Yoshida is the editor in chief of The Ojo-Yoshida Report. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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