Road Show: word travels in mysterious ways

General Motors' tit for tat with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may be watershed of sorts: the paper this week ran a column by Friedman that responded to a blog response by GM to a column Friedman wrote two weeks ago that was critical of the number-one automaker.

General Motors' tit for tat with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may be watershed of sorts: the paper this week ran a column by Friedman that responded to a blog response by GM to a column Friedman wrote two weeks ago that was critical of the number-one automaker.

Why did Friedman respond to a blog? The simple answer is that the Times denied GM entre to the Op-Ed page because the company’s letter to the editor contained a bad word: “rubbish.” Well, shame on General Motors. Among the company’s staff of media-relations pros is there not one parent?  If I caught my daughter using that word in public – to paraphrase Muhammed Ali – I’d wash her mouth, my mouth, and all of our ancestors mouths out with soap.  Thank goodness the Times has drawn its line in the dirt – oops – I mean loam.

General Motors, which drew its own line in the sand when the Times nixed their letter on linguistic grounds, took another tack to counter Friedman’s May 31 column – which castigated the automaker for selling SUVs paired with a $1.99 gas for a year deal.  The company decided to use its own corporate and product 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, which included a cut and paste of the incriminating emails 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 life beyond the Times and GM’s Web sites, propelling into other media, traditional and digital, via links to other blogs, and then through traditional coverage.

“It’s been a real education for me,” said Brian Akre senior media strategist, GM Communications, adding that GM started FYI blog a few months ago after a lot of internal discussion on whether it was a practical thing to do. “I think it’s surprised me and several of us. The reaction has been incredible. It has gotten more reaction than any other thing we’ve done since we unveiled this year the Camaro concept [a conceptualized update of the iconic muscle car].”

According to data culled from MS&L, a project-basis PR agency of GM’s, the first response to Friedman by Steve Harris, president of GM global communications, uploaded two weeks ago, has garnered 5,833 page views as of two days ago, measured before the last Wednesday response to Friedman’s response to Harris. 

Akre points out that the accelerating volume of visits to the company’s FastLane and FYI blogs has followed on the heels of media coverage, and dissemination through the Internet by links to such sites as and  

“They picked up the link, and that’s what really started driving traffic,” said Akre.

From there the story has been picked up by The Washington Times, The National Review, and the Washington Post, among many others.

Akre said the company had not intended to make its blogs the firing line for its debate with Friedman, but had originally sought to take the traditional route either via a letter or op-ed column, tactics GM had tried a year ago when Friedman wrote a column castigating GM and lauding Toyota. 

GM’s aborted effort to shoehorn a letter into the Times op-ed page involved a back and forth in which GM originally asked the Times if the company could respond to Friedman with its own 500-word rebuttal. After negotiations, GM had pared it down to 200 words. That final missive referred to some of Friedman’s allegations as “rubbish.”  Rubbish became the sticking point for the Times, per GM.

“We were sitting in Washington, DC with an agency,” said Akre.  “I was corresponding with the Times [op-ed page editor] over Blackberry, and the last response came in saying ‘rubbish’ didn’t fit the tone of the page. I showed that to Steve (Harris, VP global communications), and he just rolled his eyes. That’s when we agreed the whole trail of emails would make a great blog entry so we ran with it.”

According to Akre, that record of his back and forth email 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”)  has garnered 5,496 page views, in less than a week, based on MS&L research.

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 this, from the Washington Post’s own columnist, Joel Achenbach:  “Since when is ‘rubbish’ a term so vile and slanderous that a newspaper won't tolerate it? I can't remember the last time a critic of my writing used a word so mild. It's actually kind of polite, to my ear. It's British English.”

Akre said that since GM detailed the email string on its blog, web activity has driven not only traffic to GM blogs, but to cable TV and regional newspapers, including some that ran Friedman’s column.

“An editor at the Birmingham News in Alabama called us, asking us to help craft a response, and we sent him seven hundred words,” said Akre. 

Friedman’s most recent, and perhaps final response, was titled, "A remarkable event."

Noted Akre: "I can’t remember the last time the New York Times devoted a quarter of an Op-Ed to respond to a blog post.”

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