GM PR takes the online ramp

March 20, 2009
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The worst news swirling around General Motors in the history of the company has not prompted big public relations or advertising campaigns.

Instead, said Tom Wickham, a PR veteran of the firm, what once was the biggest company in the world is reaching out to the public one by one through social networking on the Internet.

“We’ve pretty much been on the cutting edge as a corporation using social media. We’re so deep into social media, we have our own team that specializes in this,” Wickham told a group of students Thursday at Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus.

Summoned to testify before Congress last fall to justify their requests for federal aid, auto executives traveled to Washington D.C. by corporate jet. Congress members and the public jumped on the public relations gaffe.

“What caught a lot of people off guard … was just the animosity that had already built up toward the company and the industry. That caught a lot of people by surprise,” said Wickham, now executive communications manager for GM executives. He worked mostly in media relations since joining GM in 1999 after a career as a reporter at The Flint Journal and The Saginaw News.

“That’s caused a lot of people to be very introspective. In the eyes of consumers, people are ticked off about the federal dollars, their money, being misused,” Wickham said.

“It is raw emotion, and… I think people need to take notice of that. It’s not just us, but it’s everybody. You don’t play around with taxpayer dollars.”

He displayed a set of editorial cartoons and blogger comments that skewered GM. “The venom, the anger is visible in these editorial cartoons,” he said. “As a corporation and a PR professional, I can’t dismiss the anger that is manifested in this type of artwork. You can’t ignore what people are saying.

“What we’re trying to do is understand what’s motivating them. We’re not going to fight. We’re going to listen, we’re going to learn, we’re going to tell our story.”

Wickham — “TweetingTom” on Twitter — said GM is meeting that emotion where it is being displayed, on computer monitors in homes and workplaces through social networking, including blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

“My boss expects that I’m involved in this, day in and day out. During my job, at home, in the evening, on the weekend, whenever there’s an opportunity, I’m out there tweeting,” he said.

He said GM several years ago identified credible bloggers and started providing them with the same access enjoyed by traditional media at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, such as executive interviews. The company wanted to reach the bloggers’ audience, a segment of the population that pays scant attention to the mainstream media.

For example, in December, when Grace Lieblein was named to run GM in Mexico, the company sought out specialized bloggers to publicize her appointment, he said. A recent Twitter interview with Andrew Farah, chief engineer for the Chevy Volt electric car, let GM engage the public in a personal way, Wickham said.

“The perception that social media is limited to the 20- and 30-somethings is completely false,” he added.

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