Further Discussion about the GM FastLane Blog

There’s been a fascinating variety of commentary and feedback from bloggers and media folk about my recent article on whether the General Motors FastLane Blog is becoming defensive in tone as General Motors faces tougher and tougher times as a corporation.
Read about it here, then come back: GM FastLane Blog Gets Defensive as Company Withers Away
The main point I was trying to make was that if business blogs are run by marketing and PR departments, we’d quite reasonably expect them to either completely ignore corporate news or gloss over it as if it isn’t an issue at all, but if the blog is a “new” and “unique” form of marketing communication, as some claim, then it should be free from the fetters of marcom and PR and be able to tell its own tale. Indeed, I believe that all business weblogs must have a position in this regard, one selected prior to problems or crises emerging (consider Sony’s Perception Problems) and causing either the company to ignore the problem or flail and come across rather unprofessionally.
Debbie Weil took me to task on my criticism of GM’s FastLane Blog, however, saying that she thought I should cut them some slack because blogging is a new medium and they’re just figuring it out. My response was that GM is a huge company with a long history of market communication and unless you truly believe that blogging is totally unique and novel (which I don’t) then saying that they need time to learn it is like saying Boeing needs a little more time to learn how to write press releases.
Let me take you, dear reader, on a whirlwind tour of how other bloggers and media folk have responded to my commentary about the GM FastLane Blog…

I have to start with my pal and ersatz sparring partner Debbie Weil, with whom I have been debating this issue on the Business Blog Consulting weblog, has this to say:

…how GM’s Fastlane blog should be handling the giant automaker’s giant financial woes? I say, give them more time to sort out how to allude to this elephant. As I wrote:
“Blogging is an imperfect, messy tool strategy. And it’s going to be adapted and will evolve as more and more companies use it as a marketing strategy. It’s premature to say that corporate blogging has to be done a certain way or else the blog is a failure.”
Dave says, nope. They’ve blown it already by continuing with cheery blog entries. He calls special attention to this post by GM VP Mark LaNeve defending the Red Tag marketing strategy.
Not that I don’t think GM could do better on their blog. I do concur with the queasy feeling that being too cheery right now is kind of like whistling dixie while your ship sinks under you. (Or however that expression goes.)

Debbie presents an interesting and credible position, but still doesn’t address the fundamental question of: should a business blog refer to everything that’s going on with the business, or just keep it light, airy, and positive, the digital equivalent of a last ad campaign as the CFO is flying to Argentina and the company is declaring bankruptcy?
Shel Holtz, one of the sharpest bloggers in the online world, adds his two cents:

A review of comments to Lutz’s most recent post, as well as the RedTag post by Mark LaNeve — have me wondering if GM can maintain Fastlane’s credibility at all. Not one single comment posted to the blog even mentions the word “layoff.”

That’s a splendid observation and very much reinforces my own point about the scope and responsibility – if any – of a business blog as a communications tool to the industry and customer marketplace, in addition to a venue for market outreach and sales. I would certainly be most interested in hearing from anyone who has written about layoffs on the FastLane Blog, just to have their comment mysteriously vanish [Actually, Shel now reports that there are just a couple of comments about job loss, though the word “layoff” wasn’t present, in his updated note GM isn’t censoring FastLane] PR Blogger Stephen Davies writes:

If [a business weblog] is only used as a feedback mechanism to talk about new products to customers and doesn’t cover the business overall, then no, it shouldn�t have to address the layoffs. Why should it? If it hasn’t in the past, why should it now?
If it does indeed cover other aspects of the business (which the Fastlane blog seems to do) then yes it should address the layoffs. Just like they would issue a press release, hold a press conference or make a statement by any other means.

Again, Stephen seems to be agreeing with my basic position, that General Motors has an obligation to address the issue, just as other large companies should be at least explaining in a topical way about their own corporate woes and wins. (a great example of this can be found on Randy Baseler’s Randy’s Journal when he wrote about Boeing, Airbus and the World Trade Organisation)
Oh, I note that Stephen couldn’t resist slipping in a taunt: “So all you ‘PR is dead’ dreamers take note, particularly Dave “after careful consideration I still think PR is dead” Taylor. Let’s see how the company handle their layoffs in the offline world as well as the online. PR works in both.”
Ah, Stephen, you misunderstand my position, I think. Go back and read the articles I’ve written about PR in the 21st Century and you’ll see that indeed this is exactly the kind of situation where an experienced professional public relations team could be darn helpful.
Donna Papacosta has a smart comment on the overall situation at General Motors, too, rather than just the “blog” side of things, which the rest of us seem to have forgotten in this debate:

My first thought was for the workers and their families who�ll have to deal with job loss and financial turmoil. My next thought was how GM would handle this issue in its Fast Lane blog. GM was an early adopter of blogging and has been very visible in the blogosphere.
I think that what happens in the GM blog may serve as a model for other troubled companies.”

Then I was surprised to see that Mike Pastore of IT stalwart Datamation picked up on this discussion too, commenting:

I’m not sure that a company, GM in this case, can blog about its products and ignore the ongoing chaos within the company. Listening to the radio yesterday on my way home I heard a sound bite from an automotive industry analyst. He said that GM’s biggest problem is that its cars got boring (or at least were perceived as such by consumers, not that there’s a big difference).
GM was doing fine selling trucks and SUVs, but then gas prices went up and suddenly those weren’t so popular. If FastLane is about the vehicles, then how they are going to improve the vehicles, and why they have to do it, should be fair game.
The big takeaway is that before you launch a corporate blog you need a plan for dealing with bad news.

I think that you bring up a superb point, Michael, one that cuts to the heart of the “marketing” or “genuine dialog” dichotomy that underscores this entire debate. That is, if the GM FastLane Blog is truly an open discussion with the marketplace, the world of people who buy cars, why aren’t they candidly discussing design and manufacturing challenges, union problems, staying ahead of the Japanese, trade-offs on milage improvements, why GM doesn’t support the CAFE standards, and so many other topics that are a far cry from their vapid postings about the wonderful new Chevy HHR Open Air and Cadillac Escalade, etc.
To be fair, Michael Wiley, part of the GM FastLane Blog team, did visit my weblog and explain a bit of the situation there, something I’m very grateful for as it helps illuminate the inside story here. In his comment, Michael explained that:

You’re right that blogging at GM is a balancing act of many different stories, stakeholders and approaches that constantly demands focus. We decided early on that the blog’s primary focus is on product, product development, vehicle design and quality. A vehicle company’s reason for existence is to sell cars, so the selling piece gets some attention, too. Corporate issues such as staffing levels and facility usage are not the blog’s focus.

And so, I’ll end this article by asking you, the reader, whether you believe that a great business blog should encompass a wide variety of topics both at the product and corporate level, or should they be more focused on sales as General Motors’ blog is, eschewing topics that don’t help “sell cars” or the equivalent?

3 comments on “Further Discussion about the GM FastLane Blog

  1. Dave, When a business like GM *chooses* to blog they get to determine how much of their world they want to discuss. This is not so different than when individuals choose to blog. They pick the topic(s) and disclose however much they want about themselves, if anything, in their “conversations”. If the conversation is compelling then readers join in and contribute … as is the case with this specific blog posting about GM. If the conversation does not resonate, then readers don’t join in.
    The GM layoffs are indeed a huge story, and the human side of it will indeed be devastating to many long time GM workers. However, GM is not obligated to converse about this aspect of their business just because they produce a “business blog”. It’s freedom of blog choice.

  2. I’m not sure what GM really can blog about as far as their business troubles. There are already plenty of news reports on almost a daily basis which describe and examine virtually every wart the company has. I know because I read them since I read most financial stories as part of my preparation for writing my daily stock market column. Just to retell all of these stories from the company’s perspective would not really tell anybody anything they don’t already read from the news and would result in quite a voluminous blog.
    Incidentally, Lutz wrote a brief summary of GM’s recovery “Game Plan” on their blog back on May 12, 2005. I myself wrote a rather scathing comment on that post, including “… You really need to radically redo your cost structure. Nickel and dime-ing won’t help. My view is that both Ford and GM will have been restructured out of existance within three years (if not sooner). If you fail to voluntarily restructure your business, market forces *will* do it for you. …” and my comment appears, uncensored.
    See: http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/archives/2005/05/the_game_planan.html
    After reading a number of posts on the GM blog it became clear to me that it was more of a promotional vehicle [ha ha] than an all-encompassing corporate communications mechanism. Employees, financial media, stock market analysts, vendors, etc. have lots that they could say about GM, and they do, but how much of that should be centralized on the GM blog is unclear. How many people really want to read material intended for other audiences. Personally, I want to read about the business issues and don’t care about product issues. Others will be the exact opposite.
    Key point: the whole point of the Blogosphere is that every individual gets to say their piece any way they want in many different places, without needing to ask permission or grovel before the specific whims of any company’s management decisions. So, we simply don’t have any *need* to try to *force* GM to do things “our way”. We can do things our way without GM’s support.
    That said, it is and always will be an open question as to how much of a company’s dirty laundry should be displayed and discussed in public in any particular forum.
    Personally, I always liked Henry Ford II’s advice: Never complain, never explain. Of course, most of us can’t get away with that these days.
    If you read my daily stock market column you’ll find my frequent comments on GM’s plight. It’s a difficult problem and *nobody* has a good solution, yet. Every few weeks somebody raises the spector of bankruptcy, and somebody (including me) has to reply that despite their problems, GM is *not* facing an imminent bankruptcy any time in the next year or two.
    As far as the GM blog itself, I would note that it really is multiple blogs aggregated as one stream. The domain name is “gmblogs.com” and “fastlane.gmblogs.com” is *one* of the blogs, although there aren’t actually any other blogs there right now. Further, even Fastlane has six different catagories, each of which is effectively a separate blog or sub-blog or whatever terminology you prefer, and one of those categories is “Business”. A technical problem is that if you enter Fastlane you get all the categories by default. That’s clearly a mistake. There should be different branded entry points for customers, owners, investor relations, general media, industry media, financial media, etc., and each entry point would then aggregate the categories and sub-categories that make sense for that particular audience. One catch-all blog for everything GM makes little sense. But, they don’t do any of this, so my conclusion is that they started with an open-ended concept, but ended up with a mere PR blog.
    At least where the business stands today, the business issues have no significant impact on anybody’s decision about whether to by a GM vehicle, so there’s no advantage to discussing the ongoing business “saga” in a blog designed to promote interest in GM vehicle sales.
    That said, I would suggest that GM make *some* attempt to expand their blog universe beyond simply “Fastlane”.
    My current prognosis remains that GM and Ford will both have to be dramatically restructured over the next few years and neither will exist in anything even remotely resembling its current form five years from now. I think all the relevant parties are paying enough attention to the problems that there will be a continuous stream of restructuring moves over the next few years. I don’t think anybody knows what the precise sequence of moves will be, not even the smartest Wall Street “advisors” or the smartest business consultants (or even me). It will all evolve and will depend on how the overall U.S. economy evolves over the next few years.
    It’s simply not possible for GM to effectively blog all of *that*, but how to pick the pieces to blog remains a fair question. If it was up to me, I’d suggest that they do a blog targeted at the financial media and the people like us who want to dig into the gore of how the company copes with restructuring.
    To directly address the question you pose at the end of your post, I don’t think any big business should try to get away with simply “a” blog. They should have separate blogs or category entry points that *satisfy* the needs of each audience that the business needs to address.
    The Blogosphere is evolving, and Fastlane was fine for its time, but its time has passed, and now GM needs to move on and restructure its approach to blogging.
    — Jack Krupansky

  3. FastLane was a pseudo blog if there was no real two-way conversation going on topics the readers wished to discuss.
    Blogs are about sharing the communication tool, not dominating it. The unilateral broadcast message delivery days are pretty much over.
    I understand that Lutz did not directly read comments to “his blog”, but outsourced this to underlings, who then emailed him a summary, to which he might choose to respond.
    This is Pseudo Blogging in its worse form: merely creating an illusion of a multi-lateral conversation.
    What corporations must do to “get blogs” is to actually read and interact with them.
    Why is it teenagers and mommies “get” blogging, but these smart CEOs are pleading ignorance, learning curves, and patience on the part of the blogosphere?
    It’s not blogs that these businesses don’t “get”. It’s giving up control of the message. What they don’t “get” is how the web is now universalized, the blog publishing realm is in everyone’s hands now.
    No more news monopoly, no more information hegemony.
    Businesses are not ready to hear complaints and critiques from consumers, and they are shy about exposing their faults and failures.
    A blog exposes the real spirit of the corporation.
    That’s what they’re afraid of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *