Roger & Me

Roger & Me

Study Guide 12: The Role of the Firm

(With Additional Commentary on Crisis Management)

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Guide opening:

Imagine that you have just handed pink slips to 30,000 workers in one of your company’s oldest factory towns. You have plans to lay off even more. The unions are in an uproar, the town fathers are panicked, the media are barraging you with criticism and a powerful stockholder is questioning your every move. As if all this weren’t enough, you have to deal with a pesky, muckraking filmmaker – a journalist without portfolio who is stalking you in pursuit of an interview likely to make things even worse. Your situation is that faced in the late 1980s by Roger B. Smith, embattled CEO of one of America’s bedrock manufacturers, General Motors.

Roger & Me is a work of guerrilla journalism and one of only a few documentaries included in the Management Goes to the Movies™ series. It’s a movie you’ll either love or hate, but you can’t mistake its point of view. Roger & Me skewers “Big Business” and “Big Bosses,” using a broad range of comedic and rhetorical devices to tar GM and its CEO with populist notions of the sins of capitalism. Viewed strictly as a piece of cinema, it is clever in both concept and execution; it is always entertaining, sometimes poignant, occasionally alarming and often downright hilarious. For all its cinematic strengths, however, Roger & Me sheds maximum heat but little light on issues of corporate responsibility. In essence, it’s just a rant. Yet despite its obvious (and intentional) shortcomings in terms of journalistic balance, Roger & Me is an excellent vehicle for exploring public-relations management, crisis management and the responsibilities of firms to their shareholders, employees and communities.

An excerpt from the plot summary:

Roger & Me traces video muckraker Michael Moore’s persistent but fruitless attempts in the late 1980s to interview CEO Roger B. Smith after General Motors announced layoffs of 30,000 workers in the city of GM’s founding–Flint, Michigan. Smith proves to be the most elusive of prey. Presumably, you have watched the film and seen how Moore juxtaposes nostalgic footage of Flint in its heyday with footage of Flint after the closings: a devastated city, named by Money magazine the worst city in America at the time. Nearly everyone in Flint seems willing to talk to Moore–except, of course, Smith (who, of course, did not live in Flint, but in a wealthy Detroit suburb). Moore talks to former GM celebrity spokespeople, including singers Pat Boone and Anita Bryant; he chats with Miss Michigan; he interviews Flint native and TV game-show host Bob Eubanks. At one point, he even films President Ronald Reagan who shows up to share pizza and sympathy with laid-off autoworkers.

Moore juxtaposes shots of Flint’s deepening working-class misery with scenes of the city’s society folks golfing and partying at the country club. He shows us laid-off workers housed in mental institutions; he presents a destitute factory hand (the “bunny lady”) slaughtering rabbits to feed dogs; he films poor families being evicted from low-rent homes; he talks with a former autoworker selling blood to a plasma center; and he captures the disintegration of neighborhoods devastated by rising crime rates.

As the idled factory workers of Flint struggle to stay afloat financially, the city’s leaders work to revitalize their town with an array of public works and “feel good” efforts, including a revival led by the Reverend Robert “Crystal Cathedral” Schuller. These well-intentioned redevelopment and morale-building programs are portrayed throughout as being hopelessly misguided and cruelly ineffectual. As Moore steps up efforts to interview Smith, Smith becomes increasingly remote. In the movie’s closing scenes, Moore contrasts scenes of an economically devastated family being evicted on Christmas Eve with scenes of GM’s annual Christmas party, at which Smith recites passages from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The scene leaves the audience wondering just how oblivious (if not truly vile) a CEO can be.

An excerpt from the commentary:

Was the situation General Motors faced in Flint, Michigan, primarily a “corporate responsibility” problem or a “public relations” problem? Even without changing its approach to the layoffs, could GM have minimized the PR damage? If so, what could it have done that – at least in the movie – it did not do?

Everyone from the CEO to the company janitor becomes a PR expert when the company comes under heavy media fire. The constant barrage of questions, the microphones thrust in the face and the continual requests for interviews create a surreal atmosphere in which reaction is the rule; and the ability to control the company’s message is lost. That’s why it is important to have a well-developed “PR Crisis Plan” in place before a crisis occurs. Such plans keep regrettable “knee-jerk” reactions to a minimum-though they are seldom avoided entirely.

The commentary is supplemented by Breakout Boxes dealing with these topics:

  • About Roger B. Smith
  • Lots of Acclaim – And a Notable Bad Review
  • And Then Came. . .The Sequel!
  • 10 Tips for Dealing with a Public Relations Crisis

Movies for Business book now available!

The Study Guide for Roger & Me is also available in trade paperback book format under the title of MOVIES FOR BUSINESS: Big-Screen Lessons in Corporate Vision, Entrepreneurship, Logistics and Ethics.

Information on how to purchase your copy of the book can be found here.