How GM errs using its blog to respond to bad press

The New York Times published a quite critical op-ed piece from well-known economist Tom Friedman (author of the best-selling book The World Is Flat, among others) entitled GM keeps the gas flowing and U.S. soldiers in danger [link points to’s reprint].
A few pithy quotes:
“Is there a company more dangerous to America’s future than General Motors? Surely, the sooner this company gets taken over by Toyota, the better off our country will be.”
“Here’s a rule of thumb: The more Hummers we have on the road in America, the more military Humvees we will need in the Middle East.”
“President Bush remarked the other day how agonizingly tough it is for a president to send young Americans to war. Yet, he’s ready to do that, but he’s not ready to look Detroit or Congress in the eye and demand that we put in place the fuel-efficiency legislation that will weaken the forces of theocracy and autocracy that are killing our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The basic point that Friedman is making, rather dramatically, is that it’s ridiculous for GM to offer subsidized gas prices on its existing line of vehicles instead of putting in the effort to promote and produce cars with significantly higher gas mileage. I don’t agree with his rhetorical flourishes, but the basic point is sound.
The question, however, is how GM is dealing with the situation, and that’s where this all gets interesting.
With all guns firing, GM’s corporate communications specialist Brian Akre posted on the GM FYI Blog an article entitled The Ban on `Rubbish’ in The New York Times, in which he states “I’ve spent much of the past week trying to get a letter to the editor published in The New York Times in response to the recent Tom Friedman rant against GM” and then notes “I failed.”
He goes on to explain that GM felt that it should be allocated as much space as it desired for a response from VP Steve Harris. GM sent in an overly long rebuttal and the NYT responded that 490 words was far too long and asked for a maximum of 175 words. The GM team relents and sends in a revised note of 200 words.
Then, imagine, the NYT wants to edit a letter it runs in the newspaper, just as every other letter and op-ed piece is edited before publication. Ah, but that’s another issue that GM can’t accept, so it again complains about the proposed edits. The NYT, for example, refused to publish the original letter that described the Friedman column as “rubbish”, instead suggesting the phrase “We beg to differ.”
I’ve worked in the publishing business for decades and know that one of the most important characteristics of success is to learn how to separate your ego from your writing. Editors always change things, whether it’s a favorite joke, a particularly ingenious turn of phrase, or, yes, a word to which you’re attached.
Clearly, the team at GM hasn’t learned this lesson and by its not allowing the New York Times to own – and edit – the words it publishes in its own newspaper, the GM team has ended up with no response in the media at all and instead has these defensive blog postings instead.
Of course, it’s a great demonstration of the value of having a corporate blog: it lets you control your message even when you have willing media outlets but aren’t able to accept their constraints or requirements. It also suggests that control is indeed more important to GM’s team than communication, doesn’t it?
The ironic thing is that they do have a splendid posting on their blog that demonstrates exactly how to respond to a difficult situation of this nature, by showing that the company really is open-minded and fair. Not whining about how it can’t get an unedited letter published by a major newspaper. The article: Everybody’s Got an Opinion…, in which Mark LaNeve, GM Vice President, Sales, Service and Marketing, says:
“While never one to turn down a good-natured argument, I’m here to tell you that there’s one voice more important than anyone’s. That is the opinion of the buyer. There is simply nothing more significant or enduring than the actual experiences of vehicle owners. The owners are speaking — and they have very good things to say about GM cars and trucks, things that buck the conventional wisdom.”
That’s a brilliant response. Just sidestep the issue and get on with your corporate message, without complaining that you can’t get any “satisfaction” from specific media outlets.
What I don’t understand is: why isn’t General Motors just sticking with this approach and eschewing the complaints about the New York Times?
What would you counsel if you were part of the corporate communications team at GM, that they expose their failed attempts to get a letter published in the Times, or that they disparage the entire debate by stating that it’s the customer who ultimately decides if the company is moving in the right direction?

4 comments on “How GM errs using its blog to respond to bad press

  1. While I generally like the New York Times, in this case they represent the Information Hegemony domination system.
    We blog, because no freaking editor slashes our writings and “edits” (i.e., makes into his own godlike image) our text.
    Editors can improve an author or corporate spokesperson’s text, with that content creator’s permission ONLY.
    For the NYT editor to refuse to allow GM to have its say, in its own words, is heinous.
    For that idiot editor to try to change “rubbish” into “we beg to differ” reminds me of China’s horrid repression of blogs.
    The MSM is dead. GM may be struggling to survive.
    But the real issue is not who sells cars in America. The real issue is America, Land of the Brave and Free.
    Since the MSM blew it, with their morbid bias toward sensational disaster and cynical defeatism, now WE the People are both the Media and the Content.
    I agree that driving an SUV or Humvee is riding with Ben Laden. Gas guzzling vehicles, and the hatred of walking and bicycling, is making USA vulnerable to Arab oil terrorists and regimes.
    But humans always hate and kill and rape and war, no matter what the alleged “cause” or “issue” they claim to do it under.
    I feel sorry for GM.
    I feel hostility for NYT.

  2. Hi Dave. You bring up a good example of how Web 2 is changing EVERYTHING. Not even corporate Goliaths like GM are immune.
    To answer your specific question of how I would counsel the PR team at GM�
    First, forget the squabble with NYT. GM can�t control them unless they buy them. For GM�s customers, it�s a non-issue. It has nothing to do with why I am (or am not) a GM customer.
    Second, yes, Mark LaNeve is correct that customers get the only vote. Because they write the checks.
    But, that doesn�t mean you sell everything and anything a customer wants. It doesn�t mean Mr. LaNeve�s justification is always valid.
    A lot of people sell illegal drugs to very willing buyers. Does that make it right?
    Of course not.
    Smokers buy billions of dollars in cigarettes every year. They choose to buy them because they want them.
    And our country suffers the health and financial costs, as a result.
    GM has decided to milk a high-profit niche because they can.
    And they do so knowing that the more foreign oil we need to sustain our economy, the more we are exposed to the political and fanatical decisions of people from all parts of the globe.
    In other words they�ve chosen to perpetuate the problem, and profit in the short term. While companies like Toyota and Honda have chosen to become part of the solution for the long term.
    Do Honda and Toyota make energy-efficient cars to help America become free from the terrorist infested middle east? Probably not. More likely, they believe the American economy is stronger (for a lot of reasons) if we reduce our dependence on fossil fuel energy sources.
    Maybe, just maybe, Toyota and Honda believe that American consumers will BUY fuel-efficient and alternative fuel cars.
    So, they invest now for longer-term profits and they help the world be a cleaner and safer place at the same time.
    They would call that good business.. Because their customers will be there with them all the way.
    I�d call that good business too.
    My final bit of advice for GM would be to think longer term. What good for the gander is good for the goose. They seem to have forgotten that.

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