The Public Relations Strategist

General Motors Manages Crisis With Social Media: From Filing Chapter 11 to Opening a New Chapter

May 25, 2010

Fritz Henderson [spencer platt]
Fritz Henderson [spencer platt]

Christopher Barger, director of global social media at General Motors, presented the keynote address at the 2010 Best Practices in Media Relations Summit on March 3 in New York. He’s responsible for setting GM’s communication strategy in emerging social media and leads the company’s communications efforts with platforms on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere.

Here, Barger explains how one of the world’s largest automakers responded to financial crisis. He provides a step-by-step recap of what GM did beginning on May 26, 2009, when the company discovered that it would be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, through GM’s social media communications and present-day outreach. What follows is an edited version of his speech.

On entering Chapter 11:
On May 26, we found out that we were going Chapter 11 on June 1. You guys have one week to put together the communications plan. Thankfully, we had a social media team with a seat at the table. The bankruptcy consultants were there, [former] GM CEO [Fritz Henderson] was there and [former vice president of global communications Steve Harris] was there.

We said, “We have to do something on all these platforms — we have to be out there. We’ve got to be on Twitter, we’ve got to be on Facebook.” The bankruptcy consultants looked at us and said, “Are you out of your mind? There are SEC implications here. This is a huge risk.” The CEO asked me, “What’s your answer to that?” And I answered, “Well, Fritz, how much worse can it get?”

Thankfully, the CEO said, “OK, I agree with you. We have to be communicating with people. We’re about to have 330 million new shareholders and we need to be talking to them.”

So, step one is trying to get the executive leadership — somebody who will champion you — in your corner. The faster you get an executive champion who seems to get it, the better off you’re going to be.

On first steps and how GM used Twitter to respond:
On June 1 at 8 a.m., we went live with the announcement that GM was filing Chapter 11. Prior to that — because we had a seat at the table — we had a press release, we had the SEC filing, we had everything. We said, “If we’re going to be putting this stuff out, we realize that there are legal ramifications, so if we say this sentence this way and shorten it this way, does this work?” We asked the bankruptcy consultants and lawyers, “Is this OK? Are we going to get in trouble?”

We only did that for the first seven or eight tweets or pieces of communication that we put out. After that, it was free rein. We decided we were not going to push too much direct communication out. The balance that we tried to strike was about 20/80. Twenty percent of the stuff we were putting out, whether on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else, was GM information. The other 80 percent was responding to people’s questions, responding to what people were saying. Even if they were venting and saying, “We hate you,” we tried to respond.

During a crisis, you want to use social media as a tool to respond and make sure [that consumers] realize you are listening and you care.

On communicating through other social media platforms:
Normally, we had five people whose job was communicating in social media. That week, we extended it to 12 — communications professionals from across the company. People from brands, people from financial communications, people from my team, people from everywhere in the company. You’re going to learn Twitter fast. You’re going to learn Facebook fast. You’re going to get out there, and your job for this week is to do nothing but sit here and communicate with people. We had the luxury of being a large company, so we could do this.

We [posted] on our blog and had live webcasts with a lot of the senior leadership. We brought everybody in and said, “You’re all going to be sitting in the same place,” which was a better way to communicate.

We had Fritz, our then-CEO, specifically address [our Facebook] audience. This was not just a video that we [posted] because we had it sitting there. We taped something for that audience.

The third day after the bankruptcy, we put the CEO on Twitter. It was an open conversation. This was not a press conference, and we could not pick and choose which questions to answer. He answered everything. Be out there and be visible.

We wanted to take the conversations to where they were already happening — on Twitter, on Facebook, into the automotive blogs, into the financial blogs. But in case anybody did want deeper information [or] to see more of our side of the story, we had a home on the Web. Here’s the progress we’re making. Here’s what we’re going to do. You don’t try to do this at the social level — that’s for dialogue and interaction.

You cannot overcommunicate during a crisis. Go on every platform, every possible place that somebody might be listening to you — they’re looking for information. The audience expects you to be there. This is not something that you do to try to be innovative or ahead of the curve.

Answer as many questions as possible. These are the people who are affected by what’s happening. People who are affected by this, the people who are consumers — whatever crisis has happened to you — they want to hear from you. You need to be able to let them know that you’re listening and you care about your fans.

On revealing the GM social media plan to Web influencers:
We did something a little crazy. Sometimes you roll dice. On May 31 at about 8 p.m., I sent my entire social media communications plan to about seven social influencers on the Web who I knew, who I trusted and who I believed weren’t going to go publish the entire communications plan. If I had gone to my bosses and said, “I’m going to send my tech communications plan to people on the outside and let them know exactly what we’re doing,” I would have been in big trouble.

It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted [the bloggers] to go out there and start talking about how nice we are and how this is bad when it happens to good people. That wasn’t it. The fact that we were carrying on a live social media program during the biggest business story of the year, I knew that was going to be newsworthy — especially to the social media folks who pay a lot of attention to this. I wanted them to know what we were doing, and I wanted them to mention, “Keep an eye on these guys today — it’s going to be interesting to see how they handle it.” That’s all I was trying to do, and it worked — they mentioned us.

We doubled our number of followers in the space of eight months on both platforms in part because of what was happening to us and in part because of a lot of the posts that these guys did.

Everyone is going to be interested in what you’re doing, so let them know what you’re doing. Let them talk about it. The idea is to use their reach and their influence to get eyeballs to you. That way, you’re telling the story. Now, people are watching you. Your position and your perspective is now introduced into the conversation. I don’t necessarily advocate sending your entire communications plan out to a lot of these guys, but make sure you’re telling them what you’re doing.

On who GM was conversing with during the crisis:
We engaged in about 800 conversations that first week between people we talked to on Twitter, people we talked to directly on Facebook and people we were responding to on blogs. By “conversations,” I don’t mean we put our message up in 800 different places. I mean [there were] 800 individual people we were interacting with — we went directly to them and answered their questions.

The cool thing about these platforms is that if I interact with you and you ask me a question, I’m interacting directly with you — but every one of your followers sees that interaction. [Those] 800 conversations probably reached eight times that many because of the number of people we are following. Again, it’s not, “Here’s the GM message — here’s what they want us to know.” It’s real people interacting. That was  a particular benefit for us.

For the three months prior to this [announcement], we’d all been on Facebook and on Twitter, and people were calling us names and making it personal. Oh, you represent GM. Let me tell you what I think of you. So that morning, I gave a little pep talk to my people: This is going to be the hardest day of your career. People are going to be angry at the company. It’s not personal. If they take it out on you and you need to get up and walk around for a few minutes and just blow off some steam, go ahead.

[But] it never happened. Instead, what we started seeing  was people going, “Oh man, I can’t believe you guys are out here today. You guys are doing a good thing, and good for you.” This [came] out of nowhere. All of a sudden, the fact that we were out there doing this — being active, showing people that we were listening, even people who were hating on us — [it] had the unexpected but pleasant effect of [winning people over].

On engaging critics:
David Meerman Scott — a smart marketing and social media mind — has a blog called Web Ink Now. On June 1, he ripped our advertising to shreds. You guys have this all wrong. This still feels like Madison Avenue. This still feels glitzy. It’s way out of tune with what you are working for. What we did was say, “All right David, would you like to come to Michigan? When you get here, we’ll set you up. You can talk to the CEO directly for half an hour. It’s a public conversation. Tape it and put it up on your blog. Anything you want — including what you don’t like about our advertising.”

We brought David in to spend the day with [Fritz]. He got a chance to see some of the technology behind the scenes that’s coming up [and] to go into the facility where the preproduction molds were being built. We gave him a chance to talk to everybody he wanted to talk to. Within a week, David had four posts on his site. He came out of it going, “I still don’t like their ads. [But] I have a different opinion of this company. I’ve seen some of the things they’re doing. I know how passionate their people are. This is a company to watch. I don’t dislike them anymore.”

Engaging the critics is important. There are always going to be the idiots who aren’t necessarily interested in the genuine conversation. They just want to yell at you. You don’t engage with everybody. But if somebody is being constructive, if somebody is giving good thought to their criticism, then you want to engage that person.

On expanding customer service:
This is something we started doing in December. We pulled five customer service agents off the phones for good. Now they’re on Twitter, they’re on Facebook and they’re actively searching for people who have concerns about a vehicle.

It’s one thing to have a place to refer people if I happen to see [a complaint or question]. It’s another thing entirely to have the customer service people proactively searching. You just tweeted, “I had this problem,” and somebody from GM customer service says, “Saw your tweet, can you DM your case file or tell me which dealer you’re working with and I can try to help you?”

It has had a remarkable [response] — well beyond anything that people were expecting. 

On demonstrating change:
Do some things that people don’t expect. Show that things have changed. In our case, we needed to show we’re not the same company. Even if [you] have to spend three hours during the day trying to help one person, you have one person.

If you want people to be advocates, then you’ve got to let them have it. Give them their product. Give them your attention. Give them the information that they need.

Sometimes we’ll find people who have been active on the Facebook page and privately send them [a message].  Give them what they need to advocate for you. The most powerful weapon that you have is your fan base — your loyal customers.

On fearing loss of control:
On Dec. 1, our CEO Fritz Henderson resigned and the new CEO took over. About an hour after that announcement, Fritz’s 19-year-old daughter went onto the GM Facebook page and her post was — I’ll censor it a little bit — “He didn’t effing quit, you guys. He was effing asked to effing resign.” And, of course, this was found and picked up by media. Yeah, GM said he resigned, but we’re getting the real story from his daughter.

It was embarrassing. We did take that post down, but only because of the language. If she had expressed that sentiment differently, we would have left it up. When we started getting criticism for taking her post down, name me another company that would have left a 25-word post where nine of the words were [expletives] on their Facebook page? That’s not going to happen.

On lessons GM learned:
You need to be engaged before the crisis to earn credibility. We’ve been [in the social media realm] for several years. We’ve been out there for three years on Facebook. We’ve built up a community. We talked to people who are real, and they trust us. You have that credibility.

Engagement during a crisis has to be backed up with real action afterward to demonstrate change. You can sell through social engagement, but you have to remember it’s a long-term sell. It happens through relationships rather than the immediate term — at least on something as big as a car.

Success is only half of executing your program. The other half is telling people over and over what you did, what you’re doing and the things that you did differently.

There is no over. This is not a campaign. This is a commitment. When you’re coming out of a crisis, you need to show that things are different from now on. As long as you recognize this isn’t over, this isn’t short term — this is a long-term way of doing business — you’ll probably be OK. 

PRSA and Ragan Communications presented the 2010 Media Relations Best Practices Summit, and ConEdison served as the host sponsor.

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


Thanh Kim says:

I think GM was very brave for doing what they did and chose a very smart approach to their crisis and getting everyone involved was even more impressive on their part. They were upfront with the situation and were ready for anything thta was coming their way. Social media is a great way for big companies to communicate effectively with their customers and showing that they care about their customers by addressing their questions and concerns. Communication is key with any and all types of businesses small or large.

Sept. 29, 2010

Alex Galinos says:

I think this is the culmination of effective crisis management through social media. This article really inspired me for my thesis, as I am a communications graduate student. I would really appreciate it if you could send me any further info about GM's social media plan, as I will be examining that crisis in my project. Thank you in advance.

Oct. 28, 2011

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