War of words between Times’ columnist and GM shows how far blogs have come as a media platform
General Motors’ recent battle with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may be a watershed of sorts: The paper two weeks ago ran a column by Friedman that responded to a GM blog response to a piece he wrote in late May that was scathingly critical of the top automaker. It may signal just how far blogging has come as a driver of media and as a platform for issuing opinions that can garner as much attention as a top-shelf print columnist.
Friedman’s original article, which ran in the Times on May 31, castigated GM for selling SUVs and trucks, comparing the company to a drug dealer for its tactic of offering a $1.99 per gallon of gas incentive to new-vehicle buyers. Per GM, The Times refused to print its rebuttal to the Op-Ed because its letter to the editor characterized Friedman’s complaints as “rubbish.”
GM, which refused to alter the tone of the letter, which it had already pared down at the paper’s request, took another tack: It decided to use its own corporate blogs to shape a response. Those sites, GM FastLane Blog and GM FYI Blog, served as the automaker’s kiosks for its side of the story, supported by a cut-and-paste of the e-mail dialogue GM had conducted with the Times Op-Ed page folks negotiating the length and content of its rebuttal letter.
Like a wagon on a downhill grade that winds up pulling the horse, it has been GM’s blog, however, not the Times, that seems to have given the story additional life.
According to data culled from Manning Selvage & Lee, a PR agency of GM’s, the first response to Friedman by Steve Harris, GM’s global communications VP, uploaded June 1, has garnered a combined 8,622 page views on both GM blogs, as of June 20. This can be attributed, in part, to dissemination through the Internet by links to such sites as Drudgereport.com and Poynter.org. From there, the story has been picked up by The Washington Times, The Washington Post, the National Review, and others.
“I can’t recall another incident as high-profile as this one, where a columnist for the world’s most influential paper responds to one of the world’s largest corporations, [whose comments were] in a medium that it totally controls,” says Mark Hass, CEO of MS&L. “It’s a fantastic example of how corporations can use blogs to get this kind of high-profile policy confrontation between an industrial giant and media.”
“I was corresponding with the Times [Op-Ed page editor] over Blackberry, and the last response came in saying ‘rubbish’ did not fit the tone of the page,” says Brian Akre, senior media strategist with GM Communications. “I showed that to [Harris], and he just rolled his eyes. That’s when we agreed the whole trail of e-mails would make a great blog entry, so we ran with it.”
Akre notes that the record of his back-and-forth e-mail negotiation with the Op-Ed editor of the Times – in which the Times finally agreed to publish GM’s 200-word letter if it did not contain the word “rubbish” – garnered 6,982 page views as of June 20, based on MS&L research.
Friedman’s perhaps final response came June 14, followed by Harris’ last salvo of June 15.
Like Web telephone, it has also spawned responses to GM’s responses to the New York Times’ Op-Ed editor’s response to GM, such as one from The Washington Post’s own columnist, Joel Achenbach.
Notes Akre, “I can’t remember the last time the Times devoted a quarter of an Op-Ed to respond to a blog post.”
Jim Sanfilippo, president of AMCI, Detroit says the effectiveness of GM’s effort had less to do with the company’s size than its message. “The Internet levels the playing field. I think GM was restrained, frankly, which in this case made it very credible,” he says. “Both [Akre and Harris] did a great job of restraint.”