Wars of Perception

I was talking earlier this week with a prominent Saab person (a non-employee) about the situation Saab is in right now.

He opined that there were two ‘Saab’ entities going around at the moment. One is the Saab that’s constantly the subject of automotive news reports, a company in desperate need of resources and constantly struggling to get to the next safe-point in its existence. The other is a car company that has great new vehicles, some brilliant engineers and designers, a rich history, a great philosophy behind what it does and lots of promising technology.

I tend to agree. I try and write as much as I can about that second Saab because it’s the one that I always wanted to work for, the one that I represent now and the one that excites me when I think of the future.

But of course, the two are inextricably linked. The first cannot operate without the second and right now, the second is very busy getting its house in order. When that happens, we’re going to be very busy rebuilding the confidence of our stakeholders – our customers, dealers, suppliers and others. And this is just another area where we’re going to have a battle to fight.

Perceptions about the company are not always simply a reflection of the company’s circumstances. Perceptions are often the result of the way those circumstances are communicated to the public, which invariably means the involvement of the automotive and business press. In this instantly connected age, that can be a scary thing as traditional outlets go to greater lengths to get a scoop on their internet competitors.

Earlier this week we saw a report in the Swedish media about compensation paid to board members of our parent company, Swedish Automobile (SWAN). Two board members had their compensation increased from very small amounts dating back to 2004, to amounts that reflect their responsibilities from 2010 onwards, now that SWAN has taken over Saab Automobile.

The reports on this matter left readers/viewers with the feeling that corporate fatcats were taking huge fistfuls of money and running from the company. There were inferences that the board members receiving these increases were not even working for Saab/SWAN anymore, as well as the increase figures being mentioned most prominently in percentage terms (quite sensational) rather than a focus on the currency amounts both before and after the decision (which were within reason).

Here at Saab, we issued a story of our own, correcting the errors and misperceptions reported in the story and commenting on the timing of the decision (which was also criticised). Some media outlets picked that up, but of course the major impact always lies with the initial story – and that’s where the damage is done. The fact that errors have been made just gets lost in the wash.

Unless regular people are dedicated to doing more research on the story themselves, they just tend to stick with the impression made by the first sensational story and either miss, or dismiss, any correcting stories.

The hardship for us at Saab is that some public figures are now starting to rely on such stories for their own information about the company. As the dust settled from that story last week, there were at least two significant reports where public figures here in Sweden have quoted inaccurate information when speaking about Saab in a negative light.

The first was in Just-Auto, who spoke to the head of the Swedish Shareholders Association, Günther Mårder:

In June – employees did not have their salaries because there was not enough money. When you see the board of directors get huge increases, of course it is not good.”

Marda noted the colossal pay rise came at the same time as Swan changed its name from the previous Spyker brand. The shareholders’ CEO stressed Muller receives his remuneration from Saab.

“The increase was more than 500% to to nearly EUR100,000 for the chairman, but he is the only one sitting,” said Marda. “The actual increase is only for one person as the other ones were kicked out.

It seems Mr Mårder took his information from the Swedish TV report. I’m not sure what he deems to be adequate compensation for a board member (and supervisory board chairman) of an international car company but I would wager that the 2004 level of 15,000EUR per year that was updated by the SWAN decision is probably even beneath what he’d accept.

The statement that the Chairman is the only board member sitting is untrue, but could have been reasonably inferred from the first news report that broke this story. Only one member of Swedish Automobile’s two boards has resigned his responsibilities, Mr Peter Heerema back in March this year. All other board members remain.

The second instance that I noted was a quote from a Swedish (now former) Saab Dealer as he explained part of his thinking for dropping Saab from his dealership’s inventory. I’m sure his reasons were more business-oriented than this, but this is what he’s quoted as saying publicly:

For me, it is important to be proud of the brands that we have. SAAB does not deliver cars as they promise, they do not pay wages to their employees, nor debts to its suppliers, while the owners pick out big money. It does not feel right,

We have not been able to deliver cars because we haven’t been able to produce them. The reasons are well known, are our fault, and we’re working hard to fix them. But the bottom line is that our suppliers have decided that we will not be allowed to trade our way out of this situation at this point in time. The bottom line for Mr Holmgren, of course, is that we haven’t delivered any cars and that’s the way he and his employees make their living. Fair enough.

Saab does not pay wages to its employees? Saab has struggled with two wage payment schedules in recent months but it has taken measures to meet those obligations on each occasion. Not a single Saab employee, to my knowledge, has been fired or made redundant throughout this whole process despite many of them being idle for the best part of four months. Saab is dedicated to keeping its workforce intact because the company knows it’s going to need those people when production gets rolling again.

Where I come from (Australia) and in many other parts of the world, a four-month stoppage in production would inevitably mean retrenchments or redundancies for many of the employees involved. The fact that Saab has committed to paying it’s full workforce even when a large part of it is idle for a prolonged period is actually quite extraordinary for a non-European.

And lastly, the “owners pick(ing) out big money” – again, a reliance on the original sensationalist media report I detailed above, and incorrect.

Questionable report – becomes reality – is repeated as reality.

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I guess what I’m getting at with those 1,100+ words is that we’re fighting battles on many fronts. The media, here in Sweden especially, is a big frontline for us and an important one for us to eventually win. The thirst for bad news stories about Saab is seemingly unquenchable at the moment but we have to stick to what we’re doing – solving our financial problems so that we can get back to building our vehicles.

We have problems but they’re not insurmountable. We have processes and entities that we’re dealing with to address those problems. We’re being as open and transparent about the problems and solutions as we reasonably can but there are always confidences that we have to protect.

The fact of the matter is that press reports are always going to make a bigger impression that our statements. Press reports can be as sensational and eye-catching as editors like to make them whereas our statements are generally quite sober and deal just with the issues at hand.

So whilst the public perception of ‘Saab’ reels from the day-to-day hammering its receiving – a part of which we acknowledge is due to reasons that can only be pinned on us – the core of Saab, it’s people and the products we design and build, will continue to do what we can to make sure this company can hit the ground running when the time comes for us to do so.

In the end, getting the chance to do that, and do it well, is the only thing that’s going to prove what this company is really all about.

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11 Comments

  1. Nice clarifications, Swade.  However, the press is the press.  It’s alway reported the negative side of things as bad news sells.  There’s not much we can do to change this or to change public perception right now.  To change public perception, Saab needs to produce cars uninterrupted for a numbr of months and sales has to increase. Saab aslo needs to start an advertising campaign to announce that it is back and will be staying for quite some time.  Unfortunately, I think the news in the next few weeks will get even worse as the debt collection moves forward.  We need “The Deal” to come quickly to cover the debts and perhaps get production going again.  Then, we can work on public perception.

    1. I agree, Curt.  There’s a certain inevitability when it comes to press reports about Saab and that’s not totally unexpected in the circumstances we’re in, but the wrong reports becoming factual as if by osmosis is frustrating in the extreme.  

      As you say, the only way we can stop that is taking it away as a story, by getting things done.

      1. Swade, I totally understand your frustration.  It’s inexcusable for the press to consistently report erroneous facts or to spin the facts to put Saab in a bad light (TTAC).  I don’t envy the job that you have.  It must be difficult to not respond to every rumor, spin, or simply poor fact checking by the press.  At least you’re keeping the hopes up of the true Saab fan.  Keep up the good work.

  2. I’ve said in one post at Saabsunited related to the sales figures in Sweden. It is a miracle that Saab sells one single car in Sweden if you read the always negative on Saab newspapers and news sites. 🙁

    Volvo may make good cars, but there must be some proud Swedes that don#t want to drive just another Volvo, even among the press.

  3. A good read as always, Swade. However, I would like to correct the name of the CEO of the shareholders association: it´s Günther Mårder (not Marda). All the best, cheers!

  4. I do hope someone keeps notes of all these thing. There needs to be a book written. I think it will be a terrific read.
    Keep up the good work!

  5. To quote Radiohead for all the haters and sloppy journalists:

    “When I am king you will be first against the wall. With your opinion which is of no consequence at all.”

  6. Excellent read! (again)
    After driving the 9-4x and seeing the 9-5 SC at the SOC, let me say that the product SAAB is doing just fine thank you. Crossovers are not my cup of tea but they are spot on when they say they made the 9-4x a SAAB before they made it a crossover. And for those smothering at the fact it’s made in Mexico, the build quality and fit & finish is irreproachable. This vehicle is custom tailored for the NA market. Can’t wait for both SAABs merging into one great SAAB car company.  

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