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Originally published May 20, 2014 at 4:43 PM | Page modified May 21, 2014 at 6:52 AM

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The 69 words GM couldn’t use in discussing recalls

Within the documents NHTSA released as part of the settlement was an internal presentation from 2008. In it, GM outlined 69 words or phrases it felt should be avoided in any discussion of the (then potential) recalls.


Los Angeles Times

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Tony Cervone has some memorization ahead of him. There are 69 words that his new employer desperately wants to keep out of people’s minds — words like “mutilating,” “inferno,” and even “Kevorkianesque.”

General Motors on Monday named Cervone senior vice president of GM global communications, effective immediately. He will report to CEO Mary Barra and rejoins GM from Volkswagen, where he served as executive vice president of group communications for Volkswagen Group of America.

Cervone starts immediately with the unenviable task of polishing the reputation of a brand that has been besieged by lawsuits, fines, government investigations and millions of recalls tied to faulty ignition switches connected to the deaths of at least 13 people.

The most recent chapter in this saga of woe for GM came Friday, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) fined the automaker $35 million — the maximum allowed — for waiting a decade after it first learned of the problem to actually issue the recalls.

Within the documents NHTSA released as part of the settlement was an internal presentation from 2008. In it, GM outlined 69 words or phrases it felt should be avoided in any discussion of the (then potential) recalls.

They were dubbed Judgment Words, and employees were warned, “These documents should not contain speculations, opinions, vague nondescriptive words, or words with emotional connotations.”

Reading like absurd answers from an “Addams Family” game of Mad-Libs, here’s an alphabetical list of the no-no words:

Always, annihilate, apocalyptic, asphyxiating, bad, Band-Aid, big time, brakes like an ‘X’ car, cataclysmic, catastrophic, Challenger (the Space Shuttle that exploded in 1986, killing seven astronauts), chaotic, Cobain, condemns, Corvair-like, crippling, critical, dangerous, deathtrap, debilitating, decapitating, defect, defective, detonate, disemboweling, enfeebling, evil, eviscerated, explode, failed, failure, flawed, genocide, ghastly, grenade-like, grisly, gruesome, Hindenburg, hobbling, horrific, impaling, inferno, Kevorkianesque, lacerating, life-threatening, maiming, malicious, mangling, maniacal, mutilating, never, potentially disfiguring, powder keg, problem, rolling sarcophagus, safety, safety-related, serious, spontaneous combustion, startling, suffocating, suicidal, terrifying, Titanic, tomblike, unstable, widow-maker, words or phrases with biblical connotations, and you’re toast.

The GM presentation then goes on to suggest alternatives. Instead of “bad,” how about saying “below specification”? Don’t say defective, say “does not perform to design.”

But this is the new GM! Included in Friday’s $35 million settlement, the automaker agreed to improve employee training on how to handle recalls: “Such training will expressly disavow statements diluting the safety message in the nature of certain statements.”

This means that if Cervone fails at mopping up GM’s image, his bosses at the automaker will now have full rein to call him into their office and say, “You’re toast.”



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