A few hours ago, Shel and I had the pleasure of an 18-minute conversation with Michael Wiley, Director New Media, GM Communications, at General Motors. We interviewed Michael for the 21 February edition of our bi-weekly podcast show For Immediate Release: The Hobson & Holtz Report.
In our conversation, we discussed the GM FastLane Blog, GM's experiments with podcasting and GM's plans for further developments with communication channels like blogs, podcasting and RSS.
We interviewed Michael over SkypeOut, the part of the Skype internet phone service that you use to call a normal phone. The call quality itself was pretty poor in parts, unfortunately, although the recording quality overall is better than I expected.
Neville: Thank you for joining us today, Michael! Can you give us a little background on your responsibilities at GM in particular relating to the GM FastLane Blog?
Michael: Yes, I'm responsible for media within General Motors communications and we launched our first blog in October 2004, the GM Smallblock Engine blog, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the smallblock engine. That gave us experience in working with blogs. So we launched the GM FastLane Blog [in January] with some experience, gives us a higher profile.
Shel: How did you get [GM Vice Chairman] Bob Lutz engaged?
Michael: He's an innovative guy, willing to listen to new innovations. After the initial success [of the Smallblock Engine blog], once he heard the idea and what commitment he would make, he was on board immediately. It was a no brainer for him to come on board.
Neville: What are your primary objectives for the GM FastLane Blog?
Michael: To get beyond our old ways of communication with a new direct line of communication to all stakeholders. Typical communication is issuing press releases, talking to the media, who re-purpose your messages for you, and there's no way for customers to get their thoughts back to you. We've been wanting to create this direct line of communication so that our various stakeholders aren't going to message boards to talk about us - they have an opportunity to come and talk directly to us. We're big into getting feedback from our customers, employees and others, taking their comments to become a better company and develop better products. We're really getting some excellent feedback. Just about every discussion we have on the FastLane blog, we've had an excellent dialog.
Shel: Was there any resistance from your legal staff when the concept was first proposed?
Michael: They had some concerns, but since its Bob Lutz primarily, and at an elevated level in the company, they had confidence that we wouldn't do anything that would be a problem.
Neville: So you have plans to add other senior bloggers?
Michael: Yes, as discussion [on the blog] dictates. We don't have an editorial calendar, and I don't know whether we'll develop something like that, but when topics come up we will introduce other senior executives.
Shel: Do you have plans for other blogs?
Michael: It's something we've discussed, although at the moment i don't see us launching additional blogs because we're still learning. We'd like to be able to address every comment that comes in, which we haven't been able to do yet, we're still working out how best to carry on this conversation, making sure no comment is falling on deaf ears. Every comment is read, many are acted upon in one way or another. But we don't want a bunch of blogs to proliferate and then you see dead blogs out there that aren't properly managed. We want to ensure there's consistent high level communication going on.
Neville: Who are the commenters? customers, employees, dealers? Are you happy and pleased with the spread of commenting?
Michael: I was completely blown away by the level of comments and the thought that goes into those comments. We didn't know what to expect and in many cases you feel that people have been waiting for years and years to be able to vent their feelings to General Motors, so even the negative ones aren't sniping, they're just giving us their sincere feelings and thoughts on what we can do to create better products. We're appreciating most of them!
Shel: Have you had to remove any offensive or inappropriate comments?
Michael: The volume [of such comments] has been extremely low, less than 10 in total. When we launched the blog, we posted a notice that certain things are inappropriate, so any comments that are doing things like going after personalities would be removed. The number may be less than 5, it's incredibly low.
Neville: On podcasting, what are your plans on developing this medium?
Michael: We decided to do that because of the Chicago Auto Show, launching two vehicles there. We always webcast such launches and we thought, what the heck, why don't we strip out the audio tracks, pare them down a little and let people listen to the introductions that way as well. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and we probably should have added in an intro to each one [of the two] we have done. It's funny, but when a large company like GM does something on a low budget, it doesn't always necessarily get well received. We appreciate the positive comments we've had. Shel, you weren't too pleased with it, but we'll do better next time!
Shel: So you read my stuff! Do you have plans for something different with podcasting?
Michael: Yes, we're working on a weekly programme, still finalizing the concept, you can expect it to be much more like a radio programme, probably a 15-minute weekly programme.
Shel: How many people downloaded the podcasts from the RSS feed?
Michael: We don't know yet. We've had quite a bit of feedback through the site, people offering tips on how we could do it better.
Neville: What about video blogging or vlogging?
Michael: That's certainly something that is appealing to us, but what we want to do is make sure we have plain old text blogging down before we move on to the next thing. We're always looking at the latest and greatest technologies and the best ways to communicate, but we're really happy with what we're currently getting from blogging.
Shel: On RSS, do you use RSS elsewhere in GM?
Michael: Yes, we do. If you go to GMability.com, our corporate responsibility website, there are RSS feeds for a variety of topics there. So if you're interested in advanced technology in vehicles and engines, for instance, environmental and safety information, there are RSS feeds which we've had for a while now. We're looking at offering RSS feeds in our media website. The reason we haven't so far is that the media is just learning about RSS. A survey shows that about 20% of the journalists are on RSS now, a pretty good number.
Shel: What about your Intranet - are you taking advantage of any of these technologies there?
Michael: Yes. We are launching our first leadership blog probably this Friday [25 February] by Tom Kowaleski, our VP of Communications. I'm also involved with our intranet properties and we haven't launched any yet and we're not using RSS yet either. We do have a personalized portal that allows employees to customize a lot of the content for themselves, so there hasn't been a big demand for RSS, but I think that may be something we'll be doing internally. But we're excited about Tom Kowaleski's blog.
Neville: I heard that Bob Lutz blogs with a Blackberry. Is it true?
Michael: Yes! We gather some of the comments from the blog and Bob reads them on his Blackberry when he has some windows of time to write up his responses. It's pretty awesome!
Shel: What is the reaction from the rest of the executive team, and from employees, to the executive blog? Is there confusion? Are they proud? What's your feedback?
Michael: There are still a lot of questions. A lot of people still don't know what a blog is. Not necessarily our executive team because they've been socialized to the whole idea now, but in the rank and file employees, a lot of them just don't know what a blog is. We publicized it [the FastLane blog] a bit on our intranet. I get quite a few emails asking what is a blog, so it's a learning process, although to many people who are really into communications technology and really into the web, it seems like it's been around forever already. To those who just use the web on occasion or it's just a periphery in their lives, it's still something new. So the executives are up to speed on it, and I think a lot of our employees are learning quickly, but in the general public there are still people who don't know what a blog is.
After the interview with Michael, Shel and I discussed some points that struck us from the conversation:
- Some critical but not negative comments on the executive blog, people waiting around for years to tell someone what they think
- GM can drill into the comments; it's a great dialog with customers, etc, on their products, hearing opinions directly from users
- Michael is extremely open, a pleasure having the conversation with him.
- A pity about the poor quality of the call with SkypeOut. But that's podcasting!
Let us know your thoughts on our open conversation with General Motors.