When General Motors officials decided to temporarily shut down the company's comments section on its new "interactive" Web site, GMnext, it drew harsh criticism that it wasn't being, well, interactive. The company claimed its decision was driven by the onslaught of environmental activists who "hijacked" the comments to "spew diatribes loaded with propaganda."
One group, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), encouraged its supporters to post comments and photos of recent protests at the Detroit auto show. When GM pulled the plug, RAN praised its supporters for "shutting down" what it described as the company's "greenwashing campaign." GM's move put it in the predictable hot seat for trying to control the messages it allows on its site.
Thus far, GM has not allowed the backlash to force its hand into shying away from public interaction about the company's environmental record. Rather, the company is looking for ways to better communicate with consumers and stakeholders, but in a way that constructively addresses issues.
This is commendable, given the tendency of companies to avoid interactive media. The case with GM and its battle with environmental detractors was a gift-wrapped opportunity for GM to emphasize that the online community can't be reasoned with, take its ball, and go home. So far it hasn't.
It's fair to hold a company's feet to the fire, but while demanding a company be accountable, detractors must allow for reasoned responses, which they can use for reasonable rebuttals. The fact that a major corporation offered a forum for debate should open doors for constructive communication, not provide a fresh wall to deface with graffiti.