GM gets SM because it’s Social Media and SalesMen

Owly Images

Mary Henige, presenting to CMPRSA in East Lansing, Michigan

I heard a great presentation last week by Mary Henige, Director of Social Media & Digital Communications for General Motors, about what the car company is doing to use social media to its advantage, and to its customers’ advantage.

It’s natural for presentations like Mary’s to be uplifting and inspiring, because she only talked about the successes of various programs. I’m sure there are plenty of “Oh, if only we’d known,” or “Wow, that didn’t work!” types of stories to tell, too. It’s also understandable if companies aren’t eager to share their mishaps. Nevertheless, I’m certain that seeing practical applications brought to life was a great way to get the creative juices flowing for a lot of people at the Central Michigan Public Relations Society of America meeting.

In addition to learning about some of the logistics of how GM handles social media, I also walked away with a few key points that we all need to remember:

  • The social media team at GM’s number one job is not to be on social media, or engage with customers or humanize the brand. Of course, all of those things are vitally important, but they also are all leading to one thing: making each employee a salesperson. After all, as Mary pointed out, a primary goal as an employee of General Motors should be to sell cars. No matter what your role within a company or an organization, you should have a single-minded purpose: impact sales or support your issue in a positive way. If what you’re doing isn’t accomplishing that, it’s time to rethink how you’re spending your time.
  • GM is expanding its “social assistance staff” numbers as well as the days and hours they are available to help customers. If I recall correctly, she said they’d be up to 17 employees soon and will be online from early morning to late at night Monday through Saturday, and from noon to the early nighttime hours of Sunday. As Mary said, “If that’s where people are, that’s where we need to be.” They’ve also figured out something else at GM that many other companies haven’t yet. It’s not just about where the people are, it’s when the people are. Engaging with your customers or fans in the social media sphere is a nice touch. Since many people use social media more at home than at work, though, that means being available to engage on nights and weekends.
  • The number of active users on your Facebook page is a better measure than how many “likes” you have. Mary commented that engaged users aren’t people who just showed up to get a coupon. Think about how many company pages you like on Facebook or how many brands you’re following on Twitter. Evaluate that list honestly and I bet you’ll find that you were initially drawn to those pages because there was something used to entice you. The bigger question is, when was the last time you actually looked at that brand’s Facebook page or interacted with it on Twitter? My bet is that it has been awhile. That means that neither you nor the brand are getting anything out of the relationship. And relationships that are allowed to wither soon die and fall off the vine.
  • In addition to being the front line of humanizing the brand, Mary said the social web employees act as the proverbial canary in the coal mine when a crisis occurs, “because we hear about it first.” Humanizing the brand, engaging with customers, improving relationships — these common buzz phrases are all important to a brand’s presence on social media. But one of the most valuable tools you can provide your bosses is being a listening post. By spotting a crisis as it starts to unfold, you just might prevent it from being more than a minor problem that could have been a crisis if not caught early on. People are talking about your brand, your company, your organization and your product. Just because you aren’t listening to them doesn’t mean they don’t want you to hear them. As Mary pointed out, even those people who are complaining about you publicly can still be saved because you can engage with them and maybe turn them around. “It’s the people who don’t talk about you at all that are indifferent,” she said.
General Motors certainly seems like a brand that “gets it” when it comes to dealing with customers and potential customers on the social web. So go search them out — there is a social presence for GM, its brands and its individual vehicles all over the social media spectrum. And if you have any trouble finding what you’re looking for, just start talking about it publicly and they’ll find you. After all, they are eager to humanize the brand, engage with you — and sell you a car.

Banking their way to collapse

Despite being frustrated over the Detroit 3’s lack of business acumen that has led to their near demise in recent months, I’ve also been a staunch supporter of government assistance to bail them out. You’ll note I call them the Detroit 3, because they’ve driven themselves out of the Big 3 rankings. And you’ll note I call it a bailout, because it’s saving their asses and that’s a pretty good definition of bail out. Still, I’ve supported the initiative because the impact on this country of losing GM, Ford and Chrysler is nearly unimaginable.

But after reading an Associated Press article this morning, I can’t help but think of the old saying, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

The Jobs Bank has long been a subject of disbelief for folks who found out about it. Imagine getting “laid off” from work, but still reporting and still receiving most of your pay and all of your benefits. Not too shabby, eh? Kudos to the UAW for strong-arming the car manufacturers into putting that sweetheart of a deal into the contracts. But then Congress — the bastion of pork-barrel contracts — easily recognized this scheme and demanded something be done about it before handing over billions of dollars to the Detroit 3.

So, according to the article, Chrysler is leading the way by eliminating the Jobs Bank. Well, sort of…

Workers will continue to be paid at least a portion of their wages while the company negotiates the program with the UAW.

And of course…

Workers will continue to get medical, dental and life insurance benefits, but should apply for unemployment, the union official said.

And, don’t forget…

…the jobs bank changes are temporary until negotiations with the company are finished.

So, essentially, a program designed to take care of you when your job is eliminated has now been eliminated but there’s a program to take care of the program so the government will take care of the companies so they aren’t eliminated.

It seems to me the only thing that’s been eliminated lately here is common sense.

I don’t profess to know the ins and outs of working in a car factory nor to fully understand all the nuances of labor contracts. I also am not writing this post to suggest that I could run a gargantuan international company. I’m just a guy viewing all of this from my location in a little place I like to call “reality.” And from what I am seeing, the Detroit 3 and their union brethren are banking their way to collapse.

Hey, Big 3, reality is 90 percent perception

There’s been a lot of discussion everywhere I’ve gone in the past couple of weeks about “the Big 3” automakers, which many in the media are now more correctly referring to as “the Detroit 3.” People are frustrated and angry at the mistakes of the past by these corporate behemoths but they are more scared and anxious about what happens if one or more of them fails.

There are many who have misconceptions about what’s going on inside the walls of the automakers’ headquarters, what happens inside the production plants and about the engineering and quality of American cars versus their foreign competitors.

Each of these areas is a victim of the concept that reality is 90 percent perception. What people believe about something, what they have heard from others and what they see in the media defines what they “know.”

In the long run, I think most people would agree the federal government should do something to help GM, Ford and Chrysler stay afloat and most people can live with some kind of bridge loan (even though $25 billion is an unfathomable amount to most of them).

That also is why, however, I’m amazed at the audacity of the auto companies’ CEOs, flying on private corporate jets to Washington, D.C. to plead to Congress for their bailout. Chalk that one up for the “What the hell were they thinking?” chapter in any new public relations textbook.

A quick Google search of “big 3 and corporate jets” lays out pretty well the news stories, the blog entries and the rants against the corporate leaders who each took, reportedly, $20,000 trips to D.C. to tell Congress their companies are broke and must be bailed out.

When asked to explain themselves, the companies claimed “security” as the primary reason their CEOs couldn’t fly commercial airlines. They also refused to disclose information about the types of private planes used or who was on them.

Another chapter in the next great PR textbook should use that example, too. The chapter can be called, “Hey, spokesperson, how stupid do you think your audience is?”

At the same time the CEOs were swooping down on Washington, the companies were ramping up their public relations machines. They’ve purchased massive ads in newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, commissioned public opinion polls and bought banner ads on Web sites. They also have put out a call for help to the public on their Web sites, claiming times are tough and taxpayer help is desperately needed.

OK, one more textbook chapter the automakers need to read: “The View from Down Here: How a Chevy driver feels about corporate jet travel.”