GM Repairs Reputation With Word Of Mouth

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General Motors hopes to turn thousands of its workers into off-hours advocates for the company's products. GM is letting employees at its Renaissance headquarters in Michigan check out new cars, trucks and SUVs, and drive them for a weekend. GM workers can also volunteer for special advocacy training.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

General Motors is trying to repair its reputation and trying an old fashioned approach: Word of mouth. The company has been allowing employees to cruise around in its Camaros and Cadillacs, hoping they will enjoy the ride enough to talk about it.

Michigan radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON: GM employee Amy Crandall is driving a brand new black Camaro this weekend. It's not actually hers, GM loaned her the car for a few days as part of its new advocates program. Advocates must show their vehicles to at least one group of friends, family or neighbors. But Crandall says everyone she knows wants to see the Camaro, so she'll be driving it all over Southeast Michigan.

Ms. AMY CRANDALL (GM employee): So I'm literally, I've been booked from the time I got down to my parents area, last night around 6:30, and I'll be booked until Monday night.

SAMILTON: Crandall meets six of her friends in Royal Oak; everyone gets a turn behind the wheel. One of the friends has brought her dad, Bob Norris, a six foot, four inch policeman who can just barely squeeze himself into the snug seat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. BOB NORRIS (Police Officer): Okay Miss GM. Note that tall people have trouble getting in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAMILTON: Norris drives around the downtown and through a couple neighbors, and at the end of the drive he offers a critique.

Mr. NORRIS: It feels good. It's nice and tight. You feel with the car.

SAMILTON: But he doesn't like the placement and size of the rear view mirror.

Mr. NORRIS: This is not good.

Ms. CRANDALL: Okay. I'll take that down.

Mr. NORRIS: And that is really hard to see what's up front.

Ms. CRANDALL: Okay.

Mr. NORRIS: Other than that, I like this car.

SAMILTON: The advocates program is part of a larger outreach effort the company began last June - the same month it filed for bankruptcy. GM began holding ride and drive events so employees can test drive the latest launches at their workplaces.

Today, Jaime Cox is waiting her turn, as workers outside line up the latest Buicks, Chevys, GMCs and Cadillacs. She says it feels good to focus on the future after the terrible beating the company took last year. At her first ride and drive, she tried out a small SUV called the Equinox because a friend has asked her about it.

Ms. JAIME COX (GM employee): Then when I go to tell my friend about the Equinox, they tend to have genuine excitement from me and the enthusiasm when I tell them about, you've got to see this cool feature and it does this and oh my gosh, that.

SAMILTON: Today, Cox is driving another small SUV, the Cadillac SRX. In the passenger seat is Ed Whitacre, General Motor's CEO.

Ms. COX: And it looks like it's in the recline mode.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ED WHITACRE (CEO, General Motors): You want me to push this up? You know this is my first ride in this car.

SAMILTON: Whitacre likes the idea behind the ride and drives and the advocate programs - get as many people as possible behind the wheels so they can make up their own minds about GM's products.

Mr. WHITACRE: We're probably never going to get through to all of them, but human nature being what it is, most people are understanding and will give you second chances. That's what I think, so we'll keep trying.

SAMILTON: These ambassador programs could eventually reach more than 21,000 GM employees, retirees and suppliers, plus all the friends, family and neighbors of people like Amy Crandall, who's been busy showing off that black Camaro. She says the off hours duties may seem like work, but it's just a natural extension of a job she loves. Yes, the bankruptcy was traumatic, and yes, she is concerned about GM's recovery, but she thinks her employer's crisis actually had a silver lining.

Ms. CRANDALL: But when you think about it as a person, if you go through anything just really tough, a trial in your life, for example, you always learn something and you come out stronger.

SAMILTON: GM knows that it could take a long time and more than good will to rebuild its image, but the outreach programs are a start. In March, the automaker will expand the programs to include union employees throughout the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.

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