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 "Kevorkianesque."
General Motors announced Monday that it had hired Cervone as its new senior vice president of global communications. 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 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.
Dubbed Judgment Words, employees were warned, "These documents should not contain speculations, opinions, vague non descriptive 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 suggestion 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 reign to call him into their office and say "You’re toast."