Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

GM: Twittering ‘Til The Bitter End

Posted in Economy by allisonkilkenny on February 19, 2009

General Motors and Chrysler’s requests for $21.6 billion in federal loans have a lot of citizens up in arms. GM has already asked for (and received) $13.4 billion in loans under the auto industry bailout, and the company claims it would need another $100 billion in government financing if it goes bankrupt.

But the good news is that the auto giant has a comprehensive, full-proof business model to confront the worsening recession:

1. Cut 47,000 American jobs

2. Close five North American plants

3. Drop several brands, including the lightweight, more fuel-efficient Saturn, and to counterbalance that, the “Why Jesus?!” Hummer brand

4. Hope the UAW doesn’t raise too much hell over GM’s inability to pay retirees’ health care costs

5. Twitter

I learned of step five in GM’s Vision of the Future when I twittered the following innocuous (or so I thought) comment:

allisonkilkenny: sees GM is phasing out the small, fuel efficient Saturn. Oil companies: 1, Earth: 0.

Seconds later, I received a reply tweet from something called GMBlogs:

@allisonkilkenny we don’t have indiv trash cans at ofc cubes at hq, just an ex, not sure total $ saved from small ideas, but likely large

picture-1In other words, GM is still environmentally-friendly because interns have to share trash cans. Shaky reasoning aside, I was surprised that I had popped onto the radar of GM with my casual mention of their brand, especially when the company should theoretically be preoccupied with, ya know’, going out of business.

I contacted Christopher Barger, GM Director of Global Communications Technology, about this weird prioritizing. Barger quickly responded to my questions, and he explained that GM is using TweetDeck to just search for mentions of GM, as well as interacting with the people who were already following the company. It’s not unusual for a corporation to use Twitter to monitor customer reactions to its products, and Barger equated the practice to customer service, though he seemed to take offense when I pointed out the slim differences between corporate acts of “good will” and propaganda.

I responded that, unlike customer service, I didn’t approach GM with a question or complaint. They specifically searched Twitter for mention of their product and then sent a messenger my way to post some talking points about The Corporation. 

An entire department devoted to the cause of Tweeting and blogging may seem like a strange choice for budget allocation considering their economic turmoil, but GM has burst onto the technological scene with great gusto. GM is quick to rationalize, claiming this is totally 100% normal because corporations need to keep their fingers on the pulses of clients and customers, and GM is hardly the only corporation to engage in the magic world of Twitter.

“We knew that when [the loan request] was submitted last night, there would be a lot of people reacting to it — on Twitter, on Facebook, in the blogs.  We wanted to be out there answering as many questions as possible about the viability plan itself, the progress we’ve made in its execution since December 2, the impact of the restructuring on our brands and upcoming vehicles, trying to let people know that Saturn still may have life after GM, trying to gauge how people were reacting to the plan,” said Berger.

Of course, gauging customer reaction shouldn’t take a back seat to providing actual products and services, say cars and health care. If GM is looking for a reaction from American citizens about their billions of dollars in requested loans and mistreatment of their employees, I can save them a lot of time and Tweeting:

It’s not good. It’s very bad. Less people want to buy your heavy, fuel-inefficient cars, and almost no one is thrilled that taxpayers are paying you billions of dollars to close domestic plants and ship jobs across our borders. Few people like that you mistreat unions. No one likes that in your rush to modernize and embrace the technology of the internet (complete with Twitter experts,) you forgot how to compete with foreign car companies.

It is possible to make tweets private and avoid the watchful eye of corporations, though that protection has already been hacked. For now, know that while you may never again own a good American car, you’re sure to get a prompt reply whenever you Twitter about GM.

12 Responses

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  1. mpgomatic said, on February 19, 2009 at 10:52 am

    If you throw a company name into the tweetstream these days, there’s a very good chance you’ll hear back from that company. GM shouldn’t be slapped for keeping up on the public conversation.

    GM does build fuel-efficient cars, albeit many more in Europe then here in North America. The Pontiac G5 XFE and Chevy Cobalt XFE score highway mileage in the high thirties. But it’s sad that they’ve chosen not to import the Saturn Astra (built in Belgium and also Vauxhall- and Opel-badged) with a highly fuel-efficient clean diesel engine.

  2. allisonkilkenny said, on February 19, 2009 at 10:59 am

    it’s sad that they’ve chosen not to import the Saturn Astra (built in Belgium and also Vauxhall- and Opel-badged) with a highly fuel-efficient clean diesel engine.

    Agreed. And I really don’t think GM is more to blame than, say, Ford. However, it’s odd that so much time, energy, and so many excellent minds are being sidelined to on-line customer service and monitoring Twitter than improving their actual cars, and the conditions in which their line-workers toil.

  3. mpgomatic said, on February 19, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Ford and GM are very different companies, but they are both to be lauded rather than castigated for the use of Twitter … it’s not a detriment to improving the product or working conditions. Far from it. It’s a way to participate in the conversation.

    How much time and energy, and how many excellent minds are being sidelined? Surely it’s not the engineering and design staffs that are twittering their days away … these are marketing folks. This is the path that marketing is following. We’re not in Kansas, anymore …

  4. allisonkilkenny said, on February 19, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    I wouldn’t say they should be “lauded” for searching Twitter in hopes of circumventing criticism of their product. Again, thin line between customer service and propaganda, especially when I wasn’t seeking the ear of a GM employee.

    A gracious interpretation is that they’re doing what any other corporation would do when facing a PR firestorm. A lot of people are pissed at GM, and so they’re staking out the corners of the internet in hopes of changing some minds. No more, no less. Corporate propaganda, in its normal shape.

  5. mpgomatic said, on February 19, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    If you put something into the public tweetstream regarding any company, a reply should not come as a surprise. Expect more of this, not less. In the future, Twitter’s business model will likely be based on billing corporate users.

    Propaganda is everywhere. It greases the wheels of the world.

    Scapegoat or canary?

  6. allisonkilkenny said, on February 19, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    A response from an individual isn’t the same thing as a response from a corporation, and actually, most people seemed pretty surprise (initially) that GM actually pays employees to surf Twitter. Again, it makes sense, but it’s not something one would logically deduce immediately.

    Just because propaganda is everywhere doesn’t mean we should unquestioningly consume it without dissecting its effect on our world, or debate its necessity in every facet of our lives. Otherwise, the lines between truth and propaganda begin to blur.

  7. mpgomatic said, on February 19, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    The corporate dollars spent on Twitter support are dwarfed by so many things …

    And the more time you dwell in the ‘sphere, the more it seems natural. The one you were before this is not the same one as you are now. A trip down the boardwalk or carnival midway is different for the parent and the child.

    But hey, you got a Huff Post piece out of it! 🙂

    All the best,

  8. allisonkilkenny said, on February 19, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    And the more time you dwell in the ’sphere, the more it seems natural. The one you were before this is not the same one as you are now. A trip down the boardwalk or carnival midway is different for the parent and the child.

    You lost me, Dan. And we were doing so well.

    Anyway, the way I see this is we’re split over our opinions of corporate propaganda. You see it as a natural part of the internet’s landscape. I see it as something to remain aware of so we can critically examine it.

    Thanks for writing.

  9. mpgomatic said, on February 19, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    I absolutely agree that it’s something to remain aware of … but that it is a part of the landscape … this is a carnival, with barkers galore. We learn not to be taken in by it.

    You might feel that it’s a pollution of Twitter, but Twitter will not exist in the future if they cannot implement a business model. That business model, like it or not, will largely be built upon the success of marketers.

  10. allisonkilkenny said, on February 19, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    And GM’s going to need some brilliant marketers and PR people to turn this thing around. It’s not looking good. Don’t get me wrong, Twitter is awesome, but I don’t know if it’s THAT good.

  11. mpgomatic said, on February 19, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    It all comes down to the product. Great product sells itself.

    My view is broad but narrow. For the most part, I avoid writing about the corporate stuff and focus on the vehicles in the most objective way possible.

    Which reminds me … I have to finish up this VW Jetta TDI review …

  12. allisonkilkenny said, on February 19, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Corporations are dense. You would think the product is the only thing that makes or breaks a corporation, but there are many other factors, ranging from worker rights to seemingly little things like an office devoted to Twitter.

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