Photo of Tony Cervone speaking with a Newhouse student

Exec Tony Cervone says GM had to think differently to tackle problems head-on

By Javier Romero 

October 25, 2016

As part of the Visiting Executive Program of the W2O Center for Social Commerce, Tony Cervone, senior vice president of global communications at General Motors, spoke recently at the Newhouse School. Gary Grates, W2O Group principal, moderated the conversation.

Newhouse professor Maria Russell helped introduce Cervone by noting the high-profile clients he has worked for recently. Cervone, she said, “evidently works best under pressure, because he has become quite well-known for the expertise, experience and counsel that he has provided in several critical situations at Chrysler, General Motors, Volkswagen and United Airlines, and now he shares that experience with students at Georgetown University, where he teaches a crisis class.”

Grates described Cervone as “one of the most influential public relations and communications executives in the industry today.” He asked him first about the comprehensive change GM went through to overcome a bankruptcy. Cervone explained how the brand was forced to rethink its purpose and structure to survive in the market.

“The fundamental change came from an onslaught from competition,” he said. “We were a company that was struggling with all of its heritage and trying to hang on to everything. The brand had to rebound and rebuild itself. Right now, the company operates completely differently.” 

GM exec Tony Cervone speaks on stage at the Newhouse School with W2O Principal Gary Grates. Photo by Rachel Kline

Authenticity was an essential part of the communications that allowed the company to address its troubles, Cervone said.

“We avoided talking about issues that frankly everybody else wanted to talk about and recognize,” he said. “Now, we are dealing with these issues head-on.”

Cervone cited the Bolt EV, Chevrolet´s new electric car, as an example of finding solutions to problems and keeping up with competitors such as Tesla. Cervone is a senior adviser to GM CEO Mary T. Barra, who has dramatically shifted the company´s direction to a more customer-oriented approach. Speed is very important to Barra, he said.

“We used to always talk about what is the process to get something done. Mary is a manufacturing engineer, so process is important for her,” he said. “But she is just driving on speed. Speed is the answer. And in today´s world, you have to get there.”

He said it’s fun working for a company that is “more than 100 years old but dynamic like a startup.”

When asked about storytelling in business, Cervone talked about the new GMC Acadia, which includes a rear seat reminder for parents to avoid leaving their kids inside the vehicle. He talked about how the technology drove attention to and increased awareness of an existing problem.

He also highlighted how writing and storytelling are essential skills that companies like GM are looking for. He also addressed the double edge of social media.

“It is a great tool to use in your professional environment. But the negative side of that is that it can get you close to just doing emojis and cutting through the clutter, and not writing well and trying to talk in 140 characters in a way that you are cutting corners. That can be dangerous, because you still need to know how to write,” he said. 

Grates asked Cervone to share the best professional advice he has ever received.

“You work to live, you don´t live to work,” Cervone said. “If you can keep that perspective, it is a very healthy perspective. A balanced person who has other interests, somebody who is constantly refreshing that part of his mind, is going to be a better employee.”

Javier Romero is a sophomore dual broadcast and digital journalism and information management and technology major at the Newhouse School and the School of Information Studies.

Photos by Rachel Kline, a junior photojournalism major at the Newhouse School.