GM VP Tom Stephens on Business Blogging

Tom Stephens, Group VP for GM’s Powertrain division, isn’t writing about business blogging, per se, he’s just posting a note about fuel economy on GM’s brand new Fastlane weblog from their executive team, but since it’s a controversial topic, it’s darn interesting to see how this particular posting, entitled Myths and Facts about Fuel Economy, plays out.

What most intrigues me about the GM business blog is that you can see them just starting to get the idea that the world has changed and that marketing communications (and public relations, for that matter) aren’t what they were when these execs went to school. The locus of control has shifted and like it or not, corporate America, it’s us consumers, us users, us writers, us, yes, bloggers, who are wresting back control over our daily consumption from the faceless Madison Avenue crowds.

But I, ahem, digress. Let’s go back to Tom Stephens’ posting. The first thing that strikes me about this posting is that Tom starts right out by laying a bit of an ego trip on the readers with “I’m going to jump into this blog from time to time as I see items that interest me.” What’s wrong with that statement? Well, wouldn’t you rather see him say “As questions arise that I can answer, I’ll jump in and try to explain GM’s thinking on the subject.”

It’s a question of who is in control of the communication; in the former, Stephens is clearly the boss and we are but loyal subjects, waiting for his next pronouncement (kind of like the King in a shlocky 40’s movie prompting his page to say “His Majesty has something interesting to share with you. Come closer!”). To put this another way, if it’s not something that interests Stephens, but is of interest to the blogging community, will he respond?

Further, in the online world, recognition is what drives a lot of authors, and “Last week, someone posted…” again reinforces the unimportance of individual contributors to Stephens and, of course, by extension, to General Motors Corporation at large. Instead, “Last week, auto enthusiast John posted…” or similar.

The gist of the article uses a technique that I call ‘overwhelming with facts’: there are concerns that aren’t being addressed here, and the entire tone of the posting is defensive and counter-productive for GM. GM has a staggeringly wide array of vehicles, so it simply appears in more categories than any other vehicle manufacturer. If you split the data out into, say, under $25k four door sedans, would GM still come out ahead of every other manufacturer? And wouldn’t it be better to follow the fuel efficiency evolution of a specific car or two across the last decade? That would make the point much more effectively, I think.

But that’s not the point of this article. Herein I want to highlight how when you begin to communicate with your customers in a venue that offers some level of equality for corporate and customer, the discourse itself proves to be of the greatest value.

Go back to the GM article and start reading through the comments. In three days it’s already acquired over 85 comments, mostly from customers who are quite likely car fanatics and a key customer segment for General Motors. Impressive. Customers are listening, and, more importantly, talking. And now, using your blog, you can hear them, raw, unadulterated, unfiltered by your Marcom teams.

Unsurprisingly, the first comment is anonymous and takes GM to task for the difference between corporate rhetoric and the writer’s take on their environmental record. Allowing anonymous comments is a bit risky, but kudos to GM for allowing it. It shows that they are committed to hearing from everyone. However, don’t be fooled: weblog applications allow you to delete comments you don’t like and you can bet that the IT team at General Motors is keeping an eye on this one for, obviously, spammers, but perhaps for comments that are too far off the beaten track. Which is fine. It’s a decision that your company will have to make when it moves into the weblog world too. Whatever you decide, just apply your editorial judgments fairly lest you alienate the very online community with which you seek to establish a rapport.

The third comment is beautiful because it’s exactly what Tom Stephens should have written about, talking about the evolution of fuel efficiency in GM vehicles, then again the fourth comment is the same. This is a lovely example of how the blog space is self-correcting and how the idea of this article transcends the individual writing the base message if you let people leave comments on your weblog. This alone should convince you both of the value of a business blog and the value of allowing your customers and audience to leave comments. Even if sometimes they make you uncomfortable. Remember, it’s a new world out there.

Another great comment, insight from the common man: “My suggestion is you need to improve your image, to make people think your cars are reliable and fuel efficient. You should especially get hybrids out. I know people that won’t touch a GM product because they think all of your cars are gas guzzlers and unreliable.” That’s what the original article should have been about if GM is so convinced that it has a good record of fuel efficiency, don’t you think?

And another: “This is good PR news for GM – so why isn’t this information marketed and advertised? … Call me crazy, but this *might* be due to the face that every Honda/Toyota commercial I see (now) talks about what great fuel economy their respective cars get. Seems like they “get it” – advertise fuel economy in a time of high gas prices … maybe it’s GM’s marketing department that is missing the boat.”

You can see here that within three days GM has acquired a spot that allows them to have a digital brainstorming session with their customers, a focus group for the cost of hosting a Web page. Even the potential flash-point of this debate devolving into “tree hugger” “green side” versus “regular Americans” driving “big, powerful cars” is channeled into a venue that helps GM executives see the current state of discussion, with them in the center.

And, finally, the world of markets is changing. It’s not about companies coming to us, but about us, as consumers, finding the products, services and companies we need when we need them. My kudos to General Motors for creating this business weblog, and I challenge each of you to engage in a passionate, enthused dialog with your own customers, however you frame it.

The future is about being found, not talking the talk. It’s about communication, about marketing communications and public relations evolving into two way conduits, not funnels down which Madison Avenue shoves whatever gruel they think we want to consume.

One comment on “GM VP Tom Stephens on Business Blogging

  1. Thoughtful post, Dave. You’ve done a good job in highlighting some extremely positive aspects of a business blog.
    I’ve commented on my blog today with substantial references to your post (you don’t have trackbacks so I can’t ping you).
    In any event, nice work!

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