I’ve been meaning to blog for a couple of weeks on David Bowen’s intriguing article in the FT about General Motor’s uncharacteristic response to strong criticism by New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman. Instead of calling their lawyers, they went online. Bowen’s article draws some lessons from the story.

Friedman’s argued consistently that General Motors stands in the way of the US reducing its energy dependency, because GM’s business policies promote high energy consumption, and high energy consumption, vehicles and they lobby against regulation. In a piece last year, he linked these directly to the war in Iraq.

GM demanded the right of replay but got bogged down in a dispute with the paper on the words it could use. So it published its version on its blog instead. Goliath does David.

Bowen’s article is worth reading in full, but for those short of time, the lessons he draws can be summarised as follows:

  1. If companies can personalise themselves, there’s no reason why they can’t talk informally on the web to their advantage – but it takes some subtlety.
  2. Companies need to understand the different sorts of space that now exist online. The website is where people expect to find the “official information”. Blogs allow informality.
  3. There’s a difference between the ‘home turf’, where the company controls the space, and the ‘away ground’, where you’re engaging with other people as guests in their space.
  4. Home turf blogs work where there is already a community of users, where the subject is a source of enthusiasm and preferably where the blog is run by an individual that users can identify with. Dell has done this well. GM’s Fast Lane blog is about an enthusiasts’ subject – cars – but is also really the ”Bob Lutz blog”. The vice chairman is an enthusiastic contributor, and his posts get many more comments than others.
  5. It helps to talk the language. One more example from GM: “The FYI blog encourages visitors to post videos on YouTube or photos on Flickr: ”tag it with gmfyi and we’ll find it”. A gentle way of collecting content, while fitting perfectly with the way the social network world works,” as Bowen notes.
  6. There is a gulf between lawyers and IT companies (not to mention HR departments), who regard the online space as a world of problems, and agencies and internal enthusiasts who see mostly new possibilities. Which doesn’t mean that one group is right and the other is wrong. The boundaries between work and home, and different roles and voices, can get easily blurred. There are subtleties here as well. But that’s another post for another day.

The Cluetrain manifesto, which pioneered this whole discussion a decade ago with the central idea that ‘Markets are conversations’, is still relevant and worth reading, if you haven’t.

Thanks to the Bowen and Craggs email service.