GM launches anti-misinformation website

A new entrant to General Motors’ stable of social media communication channels is GM Facts and Fiction which launched yesterday.

The Financial Times reports on this attempt by GM to address what the auto maker sees as unfair and inaccurate criticism “to make a distinction between the facts and rumours surrounding the company.”

The FT quotes GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson acknowledging that the site breaks the old public-relations rule of never repeating the negative:

[…] But, he said, “we’re trying to take some risks with our internet strategy. We’ve found that the travails of the auto industry have spread beyond the business pages to the general media. Bloggers and others tend to pick up misinformation and recycle it endlessly.”

[…] Mr Wilkinson said that “the hard-core naysayers we can’t do anything about, but there are a lot of people in the middle we can have some impact on”. GM is especially targeting young people, whose views of the company are likely to be less entrenched than older car buyers.

A look at the site’s page source shows it’s running on WordPress, one of the most popular blog platforms.

Yet other than an RSS feed, I see no other blog-like elements such as enabling commenting or trackbacks to make this into a genuine discussion forum.

Trackbacks especially would make real sense – it would give GM a great opportunity to enable anyone interested in the auto industry generally and GM in particular to link to specific content on GM Facts and Fiction.

Even if someone links their negative commentary to GM’s myth/fact content, at least you’d have some transparency in seeing those connections, thus making it easier for GM to identify areas for attention.

Maybe my saying it’s a new entrant into the firm’s stable of social media communication channels wouldn’t be entirely accurate even if the platform itself is very much a social medium.

But it’s an interesting move by GM to launch this new site as purely a one-way communication channel.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Chip Griffin

    I disagree with enabling comments or trackbacks on such a site. Comments would inevitably degenerate into vitriolic rhetoric as it all too often does these days when it comes to opinions on sites, especially those that touch on news/political issues. As for trackbacks, my experience of late with the multiple sites I am involved with is that far too much trackbacking is spam. Furthermore, that which is not spam is more likely to be posts with that same virtriolic rhetoric than thoughtful opinion and argumentation.

    There remains a place for comments, but I think the universe of sites for which they are truly appropriate is shrinking due to the rising incivility in online discourse.

  2. neville

    It would certainly be a challenging if not risky prospect, Chip. At the very least, GM would need to have trackback moderation in place (and have a page on the site defining their policy on approving or denying trackback links).

    I agree that the likelihood is high that much content published elsewhere that links to content on the GM site will be negative, critical or otherwise unfavourable to GM.

    But why not? Why not grab the bull by the horns and in effect say: “We have nothing to be afraid of. We bust myths here with facts.”

    So yes, high risk, but I think GM could gain from such an open and transparent approach.

  3. Geoff Livingston

    There’s always two sides to every story. What GM is saying by not enabling comments is this: “We don’t care about your side.” Fact or fiction, this can only disenchant the contentious voices on the other side of the facts. Mythology does occur in today’s online world, but isn’t it better to talk through the myths rather than ignore them?

  4. neville

    Good points, Geoff.

    Of course, we don’t know what GM’s overall goals are with this site nor where or how it fits into their communication planning, other than the words from spokesman Tom Wilkinson.

    So maybe a goal isn’t to use a site like this as a “dialogue channel,” for want of a better phrase.

    But judging only from what I see and read right now, I do think that a one-way channel isn’t an effective means of communication.

  5. Panos Kontopoulos

    That looks to me a lot like Using WP as a quick, modern, rich media enabled CMS tool than a modern social media communication strategy.
    Microsoft has done it years ago with GetTheFacts campaign trying to publish their views in the Linux/Windows story

  6. neville

    That’s interesting, Robin. The link on your post to the Google cache doesn’t work, btw. But still, it does look like a pulled post.

    Panos, remember we don’t know what GM’s thinking is with this site, other than what the spokesman is quoted as saying.

    That link you have just goes to a Windows Server vs Linux comparison site by Microsoft. Is that what’s supposed to be there? If so, isn’t it a different thing altogether than the GM site?

  7. Tom Murphy

    I think this is an interesting development, didn’t Obama’s people do something similar when there were “stories” circulating earlier in the campaign.

    I can understand them not enabling comments as they are attempting to provide a clear commentary. There is interactivity as you can submit your “myth”.

    I guess where it might become difficult is:
    a) what happens if they recieve a “myth” that’s true and they don’t want to comment
    b) there’s no clarity on the editorial process such as what they’ll publish or not.

    Having said that I think it’s a strong statement that they’re willing to engage and address what’s being said, and the Fastlane blog has positioned GM has a company willing to have a conversation.

    Tom

  8. Chip Griffin

    @Geoff- the point of the site is to dispel mythes. A back and forth debate in the comments would only serve to muddy the waters — and perhaps permit others to further perpetuate those myths.

    @Neville – while two-way communication can be powerful, one-way communication is still very potent. Advertising still works. Heck, spam works. These are very one-way. There’s a place for all kinds of communication.

    @Tom – it seems to me the editorial process is quite evident: they will post anything that they believe it is advantageous to post

    @All – These sorts of “debates” seem to me to be rooted in two philosophically different views of the world. Are companies beholden to the public or their shareholders? I was irritated when I saw a talking head this morning blaming the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac problem here in the States on, among other things, executives being focused on “maximizing profits.”

    In a capitalist society, maximizing profits for shareholders shouldn’t be frowned upon. Companies would not exist otherwise. If someone wants to primarily serve the public interest, they start a charity.

    For communicators and social media advocates, this means that absolute transparency, unfettered two-way communication with the public, and other similar notions are at the discretion of the company to employ. Sometimes secrecy and one-way communication do serve the interest of shareholders best.

    In our current presidential election, the media seems to have the same confusion. Countless reporters and pundits say things like: “Gov. Palin will have to appear on Meet the Press at some point.” Hogwash. As McCain campaign official Rick Davis aptly pointed out in an interview, the campaign will put her on that and other shows when and if it is to their advantage to do so. That’s what all campaigns do — and should.

    Companies and campaigns that adhere to social media “best practices” and the ideals espoused by communications bloggers may be more revered in this community, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will be more successful (though certainly it may help some).

  9. neville

    All very good points, Chip, thanks. You’re right: there’s a place for all types of communication. I’d argue, though, that the overriding question then would be: what’s the most effective form of communication?

    But without knowing precisely what GM’s objectives are for this site, comments here are really not much more than uninformed opinion.

    All good opinion, nevertheless!

  10. Zoe Lavender

    Comparison between this and McDonald’s makeupyourownmind.co.uk? That helped dispel the rumours, could it not work for GM?

  11. Panos Kontopoulos

    @neville, obviously I am talking based on what I currently see. Regarding the MS link it’s correct and similarly is what a company wants to say about things that people, media say, however without giving the opportunity for dialog. Looks like one way messaging to me.

  12. Christopher Barger

    Hi Neville (and community) – thanks for the post and your thought-provoking take on the subject of our new site. May I elaborate on what it is — or more appropriately, what it is not?

    The site is expressly not meant to be a blog or a dialogical channel, and we’ve never thought of it as such or called it one. The site is intended as an information resource and not as an interactive experience.(We used WordPress because it is quick, easy, convenient and familiar to many readers.) There are two focuses (foci?), I guess you’d say. Benign or honest misunderstandings are one; as we all know, some inaccurate things can get repeated so often that they become “fact” in urban legend. We wanted to provide the factual counters, or the reality, to some of these.

    The second focus is that quite bluntly, we also get “swiftboated” quite often in the blogosphere. We are often confronted with people who willfully choose to perpetuate smears, urban legends or false rumors about us, due to various biases (dislike of our industry in general, antagonism toward our leaders or about the fact that our workers are unionized, coastal biases that like to paint any midwestern business as lumbering or clueless, beefs about vehicles they owned 25 years ago, or any number of others). I’m not talking about people who just don’t see things the same as us; I’m talking about people who simply do not want to hear any fact or truth that conflicts with what they want to believe. One cannot have dialogue with someone who wants not to converse but to insist.

    Building comments into a site designed to combat myths (deliberate or accidental) would, as Chip Griffin pointed out in his comments, open up the site to the very kind of attacks — and could help perpetuate the very kind of myths — that we’re trying to rebut.

    Also, frankly, we have several blogs and outlets for interaction with audiences. Setting up yet another “blog”-like site to spread audiences across — especially given that, as I will be the first to admit, we don’t always do a good enough job fully engaging even on the blogs we do have — felt like a bad idea.

    As for the argument that GM “doesn’t care what you think,” I guess that to keep myself out of trouble all I should say is “Wow.” GM has the Next site, the FastLane blog, the IMSaturn community, the FYI blog… we’ve conducted live, uncensored chat sessions on our own sites and specifically invited some of our biggest detractors to take part. So I’ll defend our use of and engagement in 2.0/social to anyone.

    But I think the argument that a company using a one-way resource evidences “not getting it” or “not caring” is rather myopic. Are we really arguing that the advent of 2.0 precludes the use of 1.0 or one-way tools? I don’t think everything a company does has to be interactive, as long as they are doing it somewhere and in good faith.

    As Chip points out, traditional one-way forms of communication still work. When part of a whole communications program package, there’s room for both one-way and two-way media. (If anyone wants to argue otherwise, I would hope that they have no clients with a 1.0 Website, have never censored a single comment off their own blog no matter how inflammatory or false, have no clients who produce brochures or engage in advertising of any kind. Otherwise, the argument’s kind of disingenuous.) ;-)

    Anyway, that’s the deal: this is one resource within a larger overall communications program, and this particular resource is designed not as a channel for dialogue but for information. There are multiple places where GM continues to conduct dialogues with audiences, and those sites will continue to exist. I hope that lends some perspective to things — and thanks again for initiating the conversation.

  13. Robert French

    Christopher Barger’s comment comes off as sincere and realistic. True, it would be good to see a corporation like GM take on a blog regarding this type of content and devote the resources to do it as a two-way conversation.

    At least Christopher recognizes and fesses up to GM’s online failings. They do, after all, have plenty of success stories, too. More than their failures, by the way.

    The comment “we don’t always do a good enough job fully engaging even on the blogs we do have” is both refreshing and confusing. If you’re going to participate, and you recognize where you’re lacking, why not step up and do it right? Very confusing.

    True, the resources and time to do it right are much more than almost everyone is willing to admit. But, a firm the size of GM should be willing to do it right. The stakes are too high to set yourself up for one more instance of criticism.

    It isn’t that GM doesn’t get it, but rather that they don’t want to (in all cases) commit the resources to do what they know to be the right / best practice. Isn’t this true for a lot of corporations?

    As I shared with Neville on Twitter, there are plenty of good reasons for a public information strategy. This is one. It is also a good example of WordPress as CMS.

    Still, I understand why some might think, “Feedback – only good if it’s good? ;o)”

  14. Shel Holtz

    There’s plenty of negative feedback on the channels in play at GM. One of the things that’s impressed me about GM’s social media initiatives is the willingness to serve as a platform for dissenting voices. Bob Lutz has even made the argument — very strongly — in favor of allowing negative comments to appear.

  15. neville

    Christopher, thanks for your extensive commentary, very much appreciated.

    I understand your points re information resource and swiftboating as well as the conversational sites you already have for stimulating dialogue and exchanges of opinion.

    So GM Facts and Fiction is designed as an information channel. With that knowledge, then I can see why you haven’t enabled it with the engagement-type features you have on other GM social media properties, eg, commenting and trackbacks.

    Yet I still wonder whether making it such a closed, one-way channel is the most effective use of that resource. Easy to criticize, I know, but the site seems to be an orphan. Sure, it has GM branding. But none of the content has a publication date, for instance, nor an indicator at least of who is writing the content. The company, yes, but I want to know who at the company as part of the thinking process I’d go through in judging for myself the credibility of the site, ie, should I trust it or not.

    One good thing I noticed is that content does link out to third-party content resources. Sort of reverse citation. That’s credible.

    I guess time will tell how effective the site is in the context of your overall communications program.

    Btw, Shel and I discussed the site and the conversation in this post (before you left your comment) in today’s FIR 378 podcast. We have divergent opinion – always good in a conversation!

  16. Christopher Barger

    Hi all… to respond to follow-up comments…

    @Robert: The answer to your question may not be politic of me to say, but it’s simply that, like lots of companies, we’re still adjusting to the advent of 2.0, and we don’t always get it right. Yes, as the head of social media at GM, I recognize that we don’t engage often enough on FastLane. Too often, our authors post something, then consider their jobs “done” and don’t go back in to return a comment. I’m working on changing that.

    But if you’ve ever worked in a very large global corporation, you know that this kind of engagement represents a colossal culture shift for most big companies. Are we good enough at being truly engaged or responsive? Nope, not yet. Do I think that, to paraphrase, if we’re not doing it right then we shouldn’t do it at all? Not hardly — because the effort itself can help open people’s eyes and change our culture. It doesn’t happen “fast enough” for some, but I think the bigger sin would be to not do it at all until the culture changes enough to get it 100% right. (I am talking about FastLane, not FactVsFiction.) But read some of the commentary from readers on FL, and then tell me if you think we’re enacting a “feedback only if it’s good” strategy. ;-)

    Look – we’re going to hit a few into the rough as we continue to learn how to play in social media. We’re also going to put our share onto the green. I’m just not of the opinion that we should avoid the course altogether until we can eagle every hole. Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful response – and for seeing the successes we’ve had as well.

    @Shel: On sites that we do decide are meant or designed for conversation or two-way communications, we are absolutely committed to “allowing” dissenting or negative opinion. We just didn’t plan FvsF to be that kind of site.

    @Neville: Your point about the dates is well taken. Originally we didn’t include them because, frankly, many myths and rumors are “evergreen” and aren’t time-dependent. I could see a myth being “busted” now, falling off the front page, then needing to be placed back on the front page in 6 months if/when it surfaces again. We didn’t want to have a fact appear dated — something we originally write in Sept 2008 could be just as relevant to knocking down a myth in Feb 2009… did we want people thinking that they were reading six month old or outdated information? So that was the thinking.

    But… it’s a minor nit. So – proof that we’re listening: we’re going to be adding dates to the entries shortly. You’ve influenced the direction of a GM Internet program. ;-)

    Thanks for the other point about ID-ing authors. I wonder, though, if it really means anything to the average reader. I mean, I know Tom Wilkinson very well, and from personal experience I know that the guy knows his stuff and is credible. But if I didn’t work at GM, I wouldn’t know the difference between Tom Wilkinson, Christopher Barger, or Neville Hobson. (Well okay, Tom & Chris are the ones with the American accents.) Does our assigning Tom’s name as the author of most of the facts behind the fictions really add credibility to the truths? I’m not saying I know the answer, I’m just raising it for discussion.

    Anyway, I listened to FIR #378 last evening on my way home, and am hoping to record an audio comment this afternoon if my calendar allows. Quite an interesting – and balanced – conversation! Thanks again for initiating the conversation on this – I’ve been eagerly reading everyone’s thoughts.

  17. Philippe Borremans

    As a former colleague of Christopher (we were both on the same team at IBM) I can tell you his comments are sincere…

    As for my point of view;

    An editorial process should be in place and communicated publicly on the site – I think it will definitely help the transparency level.

    Be clear on who’s managing this site/writing this site… Don’t “hide” the fact that it’s Corporate Comms. Just make it very clear who’s behind this. Again, transparency.

    Also, who am I submitting a myth to and what will you do with my email address ?

    Just my thoughts.

    Chris, you’re doing a great – and not so easy job. I do know, just like you, how hard it is to change the direction of a tanker but keep going !

    (PS: I did submit “a myth”… curious about the response ;-)

  18. Philippe Borremans

    UPDATE:

    I received an “out of office” email as a response to my “myth” submission at the GM site.

    It came from an agency called TMG Strategies.

    They are specialized in issues management and litigation communications support.

    What does this mean with regards to my previous comment re: transparency ?

    Still expecting a response to my submitted myth though…

  19. Ronna Porter

    Excellent reporting and comment of this ‘story’ on Neville’s blog and FIR, and the quality of the debate that followed. It just goes to disprove the myth that there is only one way to approach online communication.

  20. Christopher Barger

    Philippe – bon jour! Ca va bien?!

    TMG Strategies is, among many other things, one of our communications strategy agencies — yes, one specializing in issues management, but nonetheless a communications agency. We had the submitted myths going to one of our colleagues at that agency – in part to help keep my inbox and Tom Wilkinson’s inbox from being inundated. My colleague at TMG parses through the submissions — if there are 7 submissions of the same basic myth, for example, Tom or I only need to get one note about that myth, not all seven. She sends them to us, we handle it from there.

    Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Since we’re actually discussing the minutae of corporate-agency interaction and how communications sausage gets made, I’ll confess to an oversight: our colleague on this is out this week on a long-planned holiday. While she made arrangements to have someone else receiving and reviewing the submissions in her inbox, I neglected to change the e-mail address in the submission box. So… even though another of our TMG colleagues is still reviewing and receiving submissions this week, people who submitted a myth yesterday or till around noon today have been receiving her out of office reply.

    I wish it could be something more exciting or conspiratorial that this, but it simply boils down to one person forgetting to switch the e-mail address in the submission field. Isn’t it fun to discuss the microscopic office detail of the inner workings of a communications program? ;-)

    Anyway, Philippe, it is good to engage you again. I hope you are well.

  21. Patrick John O'Mahony, Sr

    Hello,

    I am very impressed with the show.

    I am new to your podcast and listened to “The Hobson and Holtz Report – Podcast #379: September 11, 2008”.

    I heard the speaker (who?) talking about the response from GM.

    I was interested in the reported responses by Christopher Barger of GM.

    I was so interested that I made the effort to find them and read the full content at:

    http://nevillehobson.com/2008/09/06/gm-launches-anti-misinformation-website/

    It was startling to find:
    That the podcast had an acknowledgement of the response of the post,
    That the website actually printed the responses,
    That the response by Christopher Barger of GM had good content.

    My only suggestion is that, for new readers of your web sites, make it easier to locate the “comments” section, for the podcast.

    Again, I was impressed with the show.

    I am downloading the previous sessions (on iTunes-no problems yet!) and intend to listen to your future podcasts.

    Pat O’Mahony, pomahony1@hotmail.com,
    Richardson, TX, USA

    end

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