GM told engineers to avoid using dozens of words when communicating about vehicle problems that could potentially lead to recalls, including everything from "safety" to "Kevorkianesque."
A Powerpoint presentation included in the company's consent agreement with NHTSA unveiled Friday shows the nation's largest automaker told engineers to avoid terms both absurd and mundane for fear of e-mails leaking to the media or regulators.
The presentation, given in the first quarter of 2008, was meant to teach engineers to use sparing, non-emotional language to describe problems that could potentially lead to auto recalls.
"Be factual, not fantastic, in your writing," the Powerpoint notes at one point, adding later: "For anything you say or do, ask yourself how you would react if it was reported in a major newspaper or on television."
The consent agreement, in which GM also agreed to implement safety reforms and pay more than $35 million in fines, brings to an end NHTSA's investigation of GM's delayed recall of millions of cars with faulty ignition locks. That defect has been linked to at least 13 deaths. As part of the agreement, GM admitted it knew about the problem for years and did nothing.
At a press conference Friday, acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman said the company's training was part of the reason GM employees did "clearly communicate up the chain when they suspect a problem."
"Kevorkianesque," apparently a reference to Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who claimed to have helped more than 130 patients commit euthanasia, was one of the presentation's "judgment words" to be avoided. Others included: "apocalyptic," "Band-Aid," "Challenger," "Cobain," "Corvair-like," "death trap," "decapitating," "disemboweling," "genocide," "grenadelike," "Hindenberg," "impaling," "rolling sacrophagus (tomb or coffin)," "spontaneous combustion," "Titanic," "widow-maker" or "words or phrases with biblical connotation."
While many of these words or phrases are understandably over-the-top, the list also includes relatively plain language, such as "always," "fail," "defect," "defective," "bad," "flawed," "never," and even "safety" and "safety-related" were included.
The company's Powerpoint also included a list of phrases that were examples of "comments that do not help identify and solve problems," including "scary for the customer" and "this is a lawsuit waiting to happen."
Instead of calling something a "problem," engineers were told to identify it as an "issue, condition, or matter."
Instead of "defect," they were supposed to say a part "does not perform to design." "Safety" was to be replaced with "has potential safety implications."
Part of the consent agreement involves GM agreeing to "expressly disavow statements diluting the safety message" like those included in the Powerpoint. Since the recall scandal broke earlier this year, GM has started a new campaign to tell rank-and-file employees to speak up and tell top executives about safety issues.
"We have learned a great deal from this recall," GM CEO Mary Barra said in a statement. "We will now focus on the goal of becoming an industry leader in safety. We will emerge from this situation a stronger company."