GM FastLane blog gets defensive as company withers away

It’s tough times over at General Motors right now as the events of the world push our gas prices up and change the very face of the automotive industry. Pay attention and you’ll see that GM is really flailing as it tries to figure out how to stay relevant and competitive in this new ecosystem.
Reuters is reporting this morning that GM To Cut 30,000 Jobs, just another sign of the impending corporate apocalypse in Detroit. Of course, the proverbial three horsemen are likely to be intercepted by the government (think Chrysler and its experience with financial woes) but it’s still an extremely difficult phase in the life of General Motors and particularly its executive team.
Which is why it’s darn interesting to read its GM FastLane Blog: GM is far more involved with the blogosphere than any other automotive company.
But how’s it doing in terms of the real story about the company and its response to the evolution of the industry? Not so well…

The basic dilemma that faces Bob Lutz and the rest of the blogging team at General Motors: is their target audience investors and business people interested in General Motors the company, or is their audience car afficionados, enthusiasts who want to talk about torque, engine block design and tire traction?
It’s a question that every business in the blog world must determine, because it’s a sure bet that if you try to appeal to all of your possible constituents, you’ll end up having a mishmash of uninteresting material and no readers at all. But then again, isn’t this just the electronic version of what I say to my management clients anyway? Focus, focus, focus indeed.
So arguably the FastLane blog shouldn’t be talking about the hard time they’re having with the company, the lay-offs, the union strife, the insufferable burden of union pension agreements and their affect on the bottom line, etc,. but then aren’t we conceding that the blog is purely a sales and marketing tool?
Consider the most recent entry in the FastLane blog, written by an anonymous Editor, not a named contributor. It talks about their Red-Tag sale (which I’ll talk about in a minute too) and ends with this surprising comment: “But there I go selling again.”
To some extent, I think that GM is facing its own proverbial Waterloo, a historic moment in the life of this important American business, and is responding rather poorly, both in its corporate strategy and on its weblog.
Let’s turn back to the latest article, Response on Red-Tag. The title’s rather incomprehensible, and the entire article has a defensive tone that is quite unlike the earlier articles on the weblog. In the past, the FastLane Blog has been a model of cheery, pleasant discourse between a company and its customer base, with interesting and well-communicated messages about specific car models, auto shows, and so on.
As GM finds itself more troubled, however, it certainly appears that the tone of the weblog is changing too. How else to interpret comments like “Clearly, Fastlane is intended to focus on product. And for the most part, we do. Once in a while, however, I think it’s important to give you some insight as to why we’re doing a certain marketing program — particularly when our competition is out there providing color commentary on our actions.”
Or the sarcasm in “That doesn�t mean Total Value Promise is history — far from it. Do I have to say ‘read my lips?'” or the questionable comment of “Programs like this will always be part of our business. That’s just the way it is.”
It should be no surprise that the first comment added after this entry is ” ‘That’s just the way it is.’ I guess that says everything we need to know about GM’s attitude in general. Don’t bother trying anything different, things are going so great with the status quo.”
All weblogs are subject to debate and critical commentary, of course, but I find this change in Fastlane most interesting and educational.
Indeed, one of the most important phases of any company is crisis management, and with the largest layoffs at GM in the last 15 years, I think it’s safe to say that General Motors is facing a problem of truly epic proportions.
It’s managing the public perception of the company through this challenging period that will help determine if GM will come out the other side of this phase or slowly wither and die. There’s nothing more important than managing to remain graceful (think “cool under pressure”) and open to a dialog with your customers and market segment during this period.
It’s high time for GM to figure out how to sell and market cars that are relevant for our day and age, and it’s also high time for the company to really figure out how to integrate its popular weblog into the marketing mix, whether as a unique avenue for customer communication or another facet of a greater vision of marketing the company, communicating its message and opening up a dialog with customers.
That’s a lesson that even the smallest business blog can take away from this experience: blog as if your corporate life depends on it, communicate with your customers as if you love and depend on them, because, surprise, you do.

6 comments on “GM FastLane blog gets defensive as company withers away

  1. Dave, I read that “Response on Red Tag” post via NewsGator Online, and I thought it was odd that it bore no byline. I then clicked over to the GM site and saw it was clearly credited to Mark LaNeve, a GM VP. So something about their initial feed caused that information to be dropped. The byline, however, now shows up in NewsGator.
    I agree that the post was defensive, and the title was cryptic for those who aren’t hard-core GM fans. But by searching on “Red Tag” I saw that this was a follow-up to an earlier post by LaNeve announcing their year-end Red Tag sale, to which readers had posted a lot of comments (read “complaints”). While LaNeve could use some coaching on style, I think he also deserves credit for continuing the conversation

  2. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for your analysis of the GM Fastlane Blog and the “Responding on Redtag” post. 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. The post that prompted your comment is actually a follow-up to reader comments about our post on the Red Tag sales event that first appeared Nov. 14. If you read the initial post that prompted the response, you may get a fuller understanding of the conversation taking place on the blog, and better understand the tone of the response. Rather than a change in direction for the blog, the post is one installment in the give-and-take with its customers that GM has entered via the blog.
    And the lack of an author’s name? Editing oversight, which we remedied shortly after the post went live. Both posts are by Mark LaNeve, GM’s North American VP of Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing.

  3. Thanks for the background information, Michael. Clearly the highly interactive nature of the blogosphere offer different challenges from a marketing communication perspective than a newspaper interview or press release!
    I don’t have any problems or concerns about the GM FastLane Blog being focused on marketing and selling – I’m the first to say that any successful business blog must meet the needs of the business first, then it can worry about the needs of its constituencies and marketplace, in fact.
    I would encourage you to actively include links to earlier postings if it’s part of an ongoing discussion on the site, by the way. Easily done and then the background information would be immediately obvious and accessible to people coming into the “middle of the party”.
    Also, there’s another interesting discussion about how to deal with lots of criticism, especially when the company doesn’t feel it’s valid or relevant (though I don’t know whether the critique of the Red Tag posting by Mr. LaNeve fits this category, since, obviously, I don’t know your internal perspective on the matter). Another topic for another blog posting at some point, perhaps.
    Anyway, again, my thanks for coming here and clarifying the situation. I wish you and your team at GM all the best.

  4. The problem at GM (Ford also) is the same as the problem with the Detroit Lions. Sports and cars are “entertainment satisfying indulgences” and when they are managed by “BEAN COUNTERS” nobody wins. I don’t know that much about Ford ( I worked at Ford Design when William Clay bought the Lions and I told my friends that He was going to show Henry He could run something because Henry would not let Him do anything relative to car product History shows the result),but I spent 32 yrs with GM DESIGN STAFF and I can tell you it all started with Roger and it has not yet stopped, sorta like the New Orleans levees that the Feds are going to rebuild but I will bet anybody that there will be another failure via Mother Nature.

  5. Gentlemen:
    GM will continue to fail with key board members as Fisher (X Kodak for failure to keep up with the competition) and Phieser who distroyed Compac. These are the people who are guideing GM to failure and a CEO who does not have the smarts to know you have build a product of the times and what the market wants and needs and do it FAST and BETTER. Or just keep loseing billions every quarter until they bleed to death.
    Yes and hear the people in the field and the dealers and not ignore them.
    I fear for my investments in GM and think their thinking is too slow and archaic.
    Albert V. Colangelo

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