GM initiates a dialogue online to answer critics

DETROIT: GM is holding a series of online chats with environmental critics after it faced intense scrutiny from some activists following the recent launch of its "GMnext" blog and wiki.

DETROIT: GM is holding a series of online chats with environmental critics after it faced intense scrutiny from some activists following the recent launch of its "GMnext" blog and wiki. The online discussions will focus on topics such as corporate "greenwashing" and renewable fuels.

Communications executives at GM said they shut down some comments sections of the new blog after it was inundated by a large number of combative and "unconstructive" comments from environmental activist group Rainforest Action Network.

The group posted pictures of students protesting at the Detroit Auto Show last month and rallied supporters to use the comments section to protest what they claimed to be an example of corporate greenwashing - promotion of environmentally friendly policies that don't have much actual substance.

"We saw a whole bunch of comments and photos being added that didn't contribute in a constructive way - just sort of fist-shaking that 'car-makers are all evil' and that kind of theme," said Christopher Barger, GM's director of global communications technology. "We tried to have Beth Lowry, our environmental VP, address their questions. They started 'shouting' her down. We sort of recognized, 'OK, we're being campaigned.' It's perfectly legitimate to take back control of your site. So we shut down the public commentary."

Most sections of the blog remain open to comments, though they will be "monitored," according to Barger and Scot Keller, GMnext's communications director.

The online chats, meanwhile, will focus on "vertical" topics - a recent chat featured a Hummer designer - and will be open to the public. However, participants will not be permitted to stray too far from the chosen topic. This will allow GM to engage with critics on specific topics while ensuring that the dialogue remains constructive, according to Barger and Keller.

"It's not just going to be GM experts or spokespeople," Keller added. "Frankly, if you're a green activist and you're less inclined to trust GM, then we could put out our most genuine, honest spokesperson and there [will] still be a level of cynicism. I'm hoping we'll be able to get people who have been part of unflattering [campaigns] in the past and get them to be part of the conversation."

Keller and Barger denied the blog's purpose is to build GM's reputation as an environmentally friendly entity, or to address other aspects of its reputation, including its 2007 Q4 loss of $722 million, reported last Tuesday. They said the chats give GM an opportunity to better explain itself to critics.

"Frankly, there are a lot of uninformed people out there," Keller said. "If we never made an effort to educate them, if we haven't done that kind of outreach, we can't blame them for getting it wrong."

GM claimed the blog - which also includes a wiki that invites visitors to help write GM's "online living history" - is not intended as a promotional vehicle. Still, by engaging critics via the blogs, and other sites where environmental and transportation issues are discussed, the communications team better understands how to shape its messaging on the company's various environmental initiatives.

Keller said that online interaction can serve as a sort of marketing forum in which the communications teams learn what works and what doesn't.

"Monitoring the dialogue helps us make decisions tactically about what the message will be, what videos we'll create, what sort of blogs we'll put up," he added. "So listening to the blog absolutely drives tactical changes to our program literally on a weekly basis."

Weber Shandwick has been assisting GM with strategic messaging and media outreach related to the new blog.

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