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GM's Whitacre: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

General Motors Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre may be the face of the New GM, but he dodged questions just like the Old GM yesterday, just in a new format -- a webchat with reporters.

Somebody at GM goofed when they signed off on this session. The format and the lack of anything new to say were unflattering. I guess the rationale was to get Whitacre in front of reporters, sort of, for the first time since ex-CEO Fritz Henderson was made to walk the plank.

Reporters submitted 26 questions in about 35 minutes, and Whitacre managed to avoid committing the sin of saying anything new and significant at least 25 out of 26 times.

Shoot, Henderson could have done that, and Henderson would have done a better job of coming across as frank and sincere, even if the substance was the same, or lack thereof.

The one exception could be where Whitacre said GM isn't planning any new job cuts. Not that anybody was expecting GM to make any new job cuts. After all, the company already cut 18,200 jobs, just since the end of 2008, on top of years and years of job cuts. Still, it was something.

It was also semi-interesting that Whitacre said he's not planning to name a COO or president. Not that anybody expected him to.

To be at least a little fair, the bland nature of the webchat may not have been entirely Whitacre's fault. On the other hand, Whitacre's PR handlers violated one of my cardinal rules of press conferences: Don't Hold a Press Conference Unless You Have Something to Say.

Out of 26 precious opportunities to ask a question, reporters used up three of them to ask whether Whitacre likes cars; what kind of car is his daily driver; and when was the last time he bought a GM car.

The answers were yes, he likes cars; a Cadillac CTS-V; and before joining the GM board, Whitacre said he bought a Chevy Avalanche and a GMC Yukon XL, both 2005 models. If only Whitacre had bought a Buick, too, his driveway would have all four of GM's surviving brands.

I guess it's remotely possible that a hypothetical GM chairman might have said he hates cars and prefers private jets; his daily driver is a bulletproof, 12-cylinder Mercedes-Benz, but he leaves the driving up to a bodyguard/chauffeur: and he has "little people" to handle things like purchasing cars for his personal use, because hey, his time is more valuable than some peon's. But I doubt it.

Another exchange went like this, according to a transcript of the Whitacre webchat:

"Comment From Bill Visnic, Edmunds.com: "Do you have specific sales and/or market share forecasts for the first half of 2010? Are you satisfied with GM's current share considering the 2009 market conditions?"

"Ed Whitacre: "Hi Bill, The answer to your questions are yes, yes and no."

That's a good example of something that might have been at least a little funny in person, but falls flat long-distance.

My friend and fellow freelancer Paul Eisenstein complained about the format and asked Whitacre when he can be expected to talk with the press live, or at least live on the telephone.

Whitacre responded: "Dear Paul, I've been on the job for four days. I'll do it as soon as I feel comfortable and have enough clear air and time. I promise we'll talk soon."

For the sake of Whitacre and GM, not to mention us auto writers in search of a story, I sure hope a live Whitacre interview is an improvement. I noted the other day Whitacre did a great job of fielding questions from the audience following a speech at Texas Lutheran University, so he's perfectly capable of that kind of performance.

GM needs all the goodwill it can get from the press, from the public, from the U.S. government, from everybody. Non-questions and non-answers aren't going to help.

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