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What GM can learn from other past disasters

Another day, another recall for General Motors, which will result in Congressional subpoenas, an impact in profits and, most importantly, damage to its brand, which may take years to rebuild. Although GM is not out of the woods yet, it has to start thinking about how to regain the American consumer's trust, and it may want to start by looking at how companies like BP and Toyota handled their crises.

As expected, most companies' immediate responses range from denial to downplaying. When news of cars mysteriously self-accelerating began to emerge, Toyota did not immediately address them. It deflected, using excuses until it was too late. BP's initial response to calm public outcry over the enormous oil spill in the Gulf was to downplay the seriousness of the situation. For GM and its new CEO Mary Barra, an apology was issued with a promise to solve the problem. Unfortunately, shortly after that apology, another recall was ordered.

What GM—and other companies—can learn from past crises is the importance of having a clear, long-term and short-term communications strategy to address problems, reassure the American public and salvage and rebuild the brand.

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Accountability and transparency

As we saw with BP and Toyota, a big part of this consumer-facing strategy typically involves heavy advertising, which shows accountability and transparency. Own the mistake and make it clear in any outwardly-facing campaign that the company is actively and aggressively fixing the problem. GM should take special note of this because it is generally seen as a fortified and private company. It needs to unveil the full truth on the public stage if the brand wants to be trusted again after these series of recalls.

Read MoreGM recalls may continue through mid-summer

During the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the former CEO of BP Tony Hayward said he was going to devote full financial support to the U.S., but his plea in the form of a commercial was rejected. While on the surface the ad was a good idea, Mr. Hayward came off disingenuous because BP took too long to come out with any apology to the citizens of the Gulf and the country. However, BP learned from this huge gaffe and repositioned the brand's face not as a disconnected CEO but through the people who were affected by the spill in a series of television and print ads. BP spent over $90 million in ads in the months after the spill on TV spots and newspaper content that honed-in on the region the spill devastated and explained what it was doing for clean-up and economic recovery efforts.

After a few missteps on timing, Toyota launched a well-received full-page print ad campaign in Sunday papers, stating in bold and simple terms its apologies and actions to fix the recalls. It was a successful first move towards restoring brand loyalty by reaching the public right at their doorsteps in a more personal way than commercials could. The print ads were followed by a televised ad campaign that featured an apology from the CEO. Toyota took it a level further by asking regional dealerships to incorporate this apology commercial into their airtime budgets, too. So, much like BP, Toyota's ad campaign took a more personal and regional focus to grab the attention of its customers.

Long-term commitment to customers

For both Toyota and BP, these were expensive, year-long campaigns, but just because the crisis is over, doesn't mean a return to normalcy for a brand. In fact, it gave them a much needed opportunity to somewhat redefine how they are viewed by the public.

Read MoreRenting a car? A GM recall may affect you

After Toyota paused production to resolve the self-acceleration problem, it moved full-steam ahead with a renewed focus on performance and the latest technology with its Prius hybrid models. Toyota consistently pushed out ads that honed in on safety and innovative design. BP's ad campaign focused on the ecologic improvement in the Gulf since the spill and also promoted tourism to the region. It showed how BP has remained invested in not only the Gulf communities hurt by the spill, but also in preventing something like that from ever happening again.

Next steps for GM

As we saw recently, a statement by the GM CEO fell on deaf ears, especially when two more recalls have occurred since. It will take a much more coordinated—and expensive—campaign to regain the American consumer's trust. And while Ms. Barra will have her day in front of Congress to explain, GM must address consumers directly.

This will be a long-term process which will involve total honesty about the current situation of the recalls, a commitment to fix the problems and finally, the results of GM's efforts and how it is a better company. And while Toyota and BP's approach was more traditional—via print and television—GM should consider a more integrated approach, utilizing mobile and digital channels as well.

Watch the documentary: Failure to recall: Investigating GM

The goal for GM—or any company going through a quality-control crisis—is to retain long-term brand trust through effective advertising campaigns. If GM wants to have the equity in its brand that Toyota has built over time when its own recall hit, it will need to start from the bottom up. This will be one of GM's most crucial and fragile advertising campaigns and it'll be interesting to see how the company will approach it. The one good thing though is if GM does this right, it will have a new story that Americans love to get behind—the comeback.

Commentary by Greg Smith, chief creative officer at the VIA Agency, based in Portland, Maine. Since joining the company in 1999, Greg has worked with brands like Welch's, Klondike, Samsung, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Perdue, Pepsi, and Sony, developing campaigns for print, TV and online. Prior to joining VIA, Greg worked in the film industry in New York as an actor and then as a writer, director, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @jgsmittay.

Disclosure: Smith and VIA don't do any business with GM or any of its competitors. As of publication time, neither had ever worked with Toyota or BP.

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