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Backseat Driving — What the Big Three Can Teach us about Issue Web Sites

December 15th, 2008

Long before the American Congress and Senate sealed Detroit’s fate with a rejection of their bailout, PR folks from each of the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) were busy toiling, crafting, spinning and programming their own issue website that they each hoped would accomplish their own “big three” goals.

1. Recast the issue from a Bailout to a smart bet for a strong American future

2. Counter the media’s clouded view of them as out-dated and out-of-touch behemoths to be sent to the wrecking yard.

3. Possibly sell some cars – Sure, it might be a stretch facing bankruptcy in a recession, but what the hell?

GM was the first out of the gate with a satellite website, named http://gmfactsandfiction.com/ It tackles such “myths” as “GM is looking for a government bailout”; “GM still doesn’t make cars that people want to buy”; and, “GM vehicles are not as fuel efficient as comparable imports”.

Each myth is followed by a snappy rebuttal written by GM’s public relations staff. The website invites readers to submit issues they have read or heard about “so that we can have an opportunity to address it”. In early October, it featured a video from their CFO, explaining why they’d be great at making cars people love in the future. A big miss. Poorly shot, poorly lit and poorly delivered, the spokesman looked awkwardly at the camera with slumping shoulders and a furrowed brow. Maybe they wanted to look more frugal. They should have spent more on the video.

Tom Wilkinson, a GM spokesman, acknowledged that the site breaks the old public-relations rule of never repeating the negative. But, he said, “We’re trying to take some risks with our internet strategy. We’ve found that the travails of the auto industry have spread beyond the business pages to the general media. Bloggers and others tend to pick up misinformation and recycle it endlessly.”

Later, the CFO video was replaced with an animated slide show of words and graphics. Better, but still lacking any of the human authenticity needed to counter the feeling of failure hanging over them.

Ford’s site followed, having apparently learned from GM’s missteps. Titled simply, “The Ford Story” it featured beautifully lit video of Chairman, Bill Ford, (pulling on the historical heartstrings) looking off camera talking plainly about how Ford was in a position to take a different route to success, than the one it had previously taken. Hey, change worked for Obama, why not the Fords?

According to the site, “At Ford, we are headed in a new direction. After turning a profit this year in the first quarter and making significant progress on cost reductions, we were hit by a spike in gas prices, followed by the current credit crisis. But instead of focusing on our challenges, we’d like you to know how very far Ford has come and how we’re doing business differently.”

It also contained a clickable economic footprint where you could find what Ford meant in real dollars and real jobs to your state. I checked PA. According to the site, Ford accounts for 110 direct staff and nearly 8,000 dealer employees throughout the state. Healthcare spending alone is $9M. An effective approach –historical and hyper-local.

Until a few weeks ago, Chrysler, the original bailout baby, did not have an issue site. Just glamour shots of trucks and cars at huge discounts. When they did enter the online fray, they went hyper-human.

The video on their site, featured “real” employees with real titles, from real places talking about what the car-maker means to America and why America should care. Well done Chrysler. Iacocca would be proud. More than any other issue website you answered with simplicity and authenticity the most important and basic question. “Why should I care?” It also contained a link titled, “Take Democracy by the horns” which led you to a contact your representative site. Good move.

It did not go unnoticed that every video from every site carried the ubiquitous YouTube logo, which has become a PR given in today’s multi-media, multi-tasking world.

Corporations face important issues all the time. Rarely do they carry such high stakes as $14 billion, but it all feels just as crucial. If you do pull the issue website from your marketing quiver, remember the big three rules:

1. Validate their concerns.

2. Show them (don’t tell them) your actions.

3. Let them know you care.

You can only accomplish the last one with authentic human actions and messages, not bogus corporate ones. Or you’ll never get in the driver’s seat.

Posted Under: Crisis Communications, Media & Journalism, Public Relations
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