04/09/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Americans Think GM Engineered Devastating Cover-Up, Poll Finds


General Motors is facing huge public backlash in the wake of a high-profile car recall that has been linked to the deaths of at least 13 people, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows.

GM announced the recall over ignition switch issues in February. Later-released internal documents revealed that the company had known about such problems as early as 2001, sparking a federal investigation.

The new poll shows that 4 in 5 Americans have heard about the recall and that the company's reputation has suffered as a result.

Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they think GM hid information about problems with its cars. Only 9 percent said GM was forthcoming with that information. Sixty-nine percent said they think GM should have acted sooner to recall the vehicles affected by the defect.

More troubling for the car company: A stunning 42 percent of poll respondents said they had heard something recently that would make them less likely to buy a GM car, even before being asked any questions specifically about the recall.

Consumer perception could get even worse, as the recall fiasco drags on. The recall has expanded to include more than 2.5 million vehicles, and the company is facing fines of $7,000 a day for missing a deadline to answer questions posed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as part of its investigation into GM's handling of the ignition problems. NHTSA has said it may refer the matter to the Justice Department.

“The longer it goes on, the longer it could start changing [consumers’] behavior -- from ‘GM’s got this issue of recalls for cars that aren’t made anymore,’ which a lot of people are thinking right now, to ‘GM seems to have a lot of problems, I don’t know if I want to buy one [of their cars],'” said Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book, a California-based automotive price guide and market research firm.

GM was not positioned very strongly before the crisis began. It had emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2009 and was still in the process of re-inventing itself.

Americans' opinions of GM differed starkly depending on how much they had heard about the recent recall. Among those who said they had heard a lot, only 34 percent said they had a favorable opinion of GM and 61 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Among those who had heard only a little, 52 percent had a favorable opinion and only 40 percent had an unfavorable opinion. People who had not heard anything about the recall were less likely to give an opinion on GM at all, but those who did tended to rate it favorably, 44 percent to 20 percent.

To rebuild its reputation, GM needs to address the federal investigations openly, take responsibility for its failures, and properly discipline any individuals found culpable of malfeasance, said crisis management strategist Gene Grabowski.

The company also must figure out how to change the conversation: “GM has to find ways to produce news constantly that’s favorable, about new [car] models, about innovation and anything else that takes them away from the recall story,” Grabowski said. “If they’re producing automobiles now that people like and that people want ... that will go a long way towards restoring their reputation.”

The history of similar crises reinforces the idea that automakers can rebuild consumer confidence after damaging recalls. By some measures, Toyota has already bounced back after recalling millions of cars in 2009 and 2010 due to problems with brakes, accelerators and floor mats. Although public opinion of the carmaker fell during the crisis, polls found it started to rebound just a few months later. By 2013, Toyota was the most highly regarded auto-sector company in the country, according to a Harris Interactive survey. Toyota accomplished that turnaround by bolstering its customer care structure and social media presence and, Grabowski said, by offering discounts on cars and increasing its focus on quality control.

But GM might have a harder time rebounding than Toyota did, because its reputation isn’t as strong as Toyota’s was pre-crisis, noted Grabowski. “Toyota had a store of good faith built up,” he said. “GM doesn’t quite have that reputation.”

The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted April 4-6 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling.