Christina’s Coffee Talk with Christopher Barger

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Today’s coffee talk is with Chris Barger, director of global social media for General Motors. In March I had the opportunity to listen to Chris’s keynote speech at the 2010 Media Relations Best Practices Summit hosted by PRSA and Ragan’s PR Daily, and immediately knew he would be a great guest. In my opinion, because he was so candid and honest in how he presented that I still remember the information he shared today. He’s also quite funny which kept the attendees paying attention ;).

Like your typical PR professional he’s a fan of caffeine and is very specific with how he needs it. If you’re going to ask him to coffee remember to get him one of the following: Tim Horton’ english coffee cappuccino, Dunkin Donuts coconut coffee light and sweet, and Coffee Beanery’s crème brulee. So sit tight because this is a long one but I promise the golden nuggets of information make it completely worth the procrastination at work ;).

As director of global social media for General Motors’s, I’m going to assume you receive resistance but would you say it’s changed?

The resistance today is definitely different than it used to be before the crash last summer. It was mostly people refusing to take it seriously and not believing that blogs, YouTube or Facebook were important. However that doesn’t happen anymore, to be honest. Now we see an opposite kind of resistance. So many people in every part of the company recognize the power of these platforms and want to participate without understanding the space. The resistance I see now is along the lines of “What do you mean you don’t want me putting our new commercial on YouTube or our Facebook page?” or “What do you mean, I’m doing it wrong? Aren’t you the one who’s always said that there’s no hard and fast playbook or template for social media?”

I’ve gone from wishing my phone calls inside the company would get answered more often, to not being able to answer all the phone calls we get from other GMers, to now wishing they’d call a little more often when planning things in the social web. You know, when I set the goal of getting everyone inside GM attuned to the social web and active within it, maybe someone should have told me ‘be careful what you wish for.’ (j/k)

Where does it still come from?

I don’t want this to be a blanket indictment of the entire function, because that would not be fair. But some of the bigger challenges come from people in marketing. I think they largely understand that the social web is a series of important channels with hundreds of millions of viewers/members. But many of them are still intimidated by the idea of actually interacting with an audience; they prefer to just put one-way messages up. We do hear the criticisms within the company that there’s no strategy in SM. It’s all tactics. I respond by telling them that there is in fact a strategy and it works. But they don’t recognize it as one because it doesn’t include many of the familiar or comfortable marketing tactics they’re used to seeing.

On the other hand, some of the most innovative people we have inside GM on social are in marketing. So it really just depends on the individual.

The legal department has been remarkably cooperative. They’ve evolved from being threatened by the nature of the social web, to their first thought being yes. If they ever say no, they always offer up alternatives to help us achieve what we’re setting out to do.

And how do you combat it?
I find brute force and the removal of limbs or appendages to be most effective. ;-) But seriously folks, you need a few things to combat the resistance you’ll run into.

First, it really helps to have an executive champion backing you. You’d be amazed how many people suddenly “get it” when the boss or someone with a “C” in their title think what you’re doing is smart and innovative. What personally helped me is having success to build upon. Successes don’t need to be Mashable-headline level wins; the little ones count too. It’s having a tangible example to show that it works. It’s a great arrow to have in your quiver.

If that doesn’t work, scare the bosses. Compare your company with competitors who are involved in SM and ask if they want to be behind the curve. Point out how many people use the social web regularly. Ask them if they can afford to ignore hundreds of millions of opportunities to engage the buying public?

The GM Facebook page has over 90,000 some odd fans and the Twitter account is also impressive. How big is the social media team?

We fluctuate. During summer of 2009 when we had our big crisis, we had five people plus me. That decreased from December through March of this year to just me. Currently, I work with three great people has a team maintaining our social media presence. Plus my boss is very active in the space as well.

Where we’ve really been able to make an impact is increasing the associates within General Motors to see social media as part of their job. Right now, most of the communications people and even some marketing folks are starting to see it as the direction to head regardless if social media is in their title. Buick reaches out to bloggers every time they have a new vehicle launch; Chevrolet invites bloggers and Facebook fans for major auto shows; Cadillac manages their own Facebook and Twitter presence with only occasional guidance from me. My team still counsels and comes up with ideas, but almost everyone’s begun getting involved.

That said, there are four of us with direct responsibility for maintaining the “General Motors” Facebook page, and six of us who, on occasion, tweet from the @GMBlogs Twitter account.

What’s the next platform that GM plans to use and why?

We’re exploring and learning about geo-location or geo-aware platforms. I think that sometimes in all the “what’s the next big thing” speculation, a more important point can get lost. We all do it but the fact is this space evolves too quickly for us to put all our eggs in a particular basket. When I started at GM in 2007, having a blog was still novel, inviting bloggers to auto shows or drive events was unheard of, and casual observers of social were all drooling over MySpace. By 2008, Facebook was the big thing. By 2009 it was Twitter, and this year everyone’s talking about FourSquare and Gowalla. By next year, it’ll be something else.

Instead of focusing on what’s the next big platform, companies need to know if their organization set up on the back end (or internally) to move nimbly to take advantage of whatever emerges. Do the PR and marketing teams work together efficiently enough to explore the new platforms as they emerge? Is our IT department prepared to support new technologies – both inside and outside the firewall – if we want to start experimenting with them? Does leadership accept that early adoption and leadership in a space means learning lessons – and sometimes making mistakes – in public where people can see us do it? That’s more important to me than which platform comes next.  If the answer to those questions is no, then it doesn’t really matter which platform’s emerging, does it?

Now with social media integrated into communication initiatives, is it possible to over communicate? Can we really hit every platform?

I’ve noticed there can be a tendency people to say, “We’ve already issued our statement on that (question or issue). Let’s just refer people to that statement/press release.” I think it’s a mistake to push a message out once and then let it stand. Issue the press release, make the statement but follow up by answering questions you will receive on Facebook, Twitter, or on your blog. Don’t think because you’ve issued a statement, addressed the issue or blunted potential criticism that people have seen or understand your viewpoint.  Statements and press releases are corporate or organizational behavior; ongoing dialogue is a more human behavior. In a crisis, people need to see your company in human terms.  If you sound and act all corporate, you have little hope of winning people over and getting them to listen to your perspective on the issue.

You have to accept going in that you can’t hit every platform or talk to everybody. But also recognize the scale of the social web. Every time you engage someone on Facebook, your fans see the interaction. Every time you answer a question on Twitter, not only do your followers see the conversation but the people who follow that person you’re talking as well.

The social web makes management more challenging and more effective at the same time. On one hand, it’s so much harder to measure everything, given how many different conversations happen in so many different places. And how much weight should we ascribe to the social web? If 400 people on your fan page “like” one of your posts, how does that compare with a traditional media hit in terms of how effective you are at conveying your message? On the other hand, things like Twitter allow you to more directly see whether you’re moving the needle. If you’ve asked me a question or raised a criticism on Twitter, and I respond, and your follow up Tweets reflect a greater understanding of our perspective, or if you’re even giving us credit where you’d previously been critical, I can point to that shift in your thinking as a direct result of our having interacted on Twitter. I can’t draw that same direct cause and effect from, say, an ad on the back of Time magazine or a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal.

Do you plan on competing with Ford, an automaker that is often cited for its SM strategy?

I don’t. That sounds like a flippant answer, but I’m a firm believer that being innovative and being a leader in the social web means not overly worrying about what your competition is doing. I recognize that because we’re in the same industry and based in the same city, people are going to naturally make the comparison between their efforts and ours.

But really, if I spend too much time worrying about what Ford is doing, then all I am doing is following Ford; I’m not leading or innovating. Look, the social web is a big enough place that more than one company in an industry can be successful in engaging it. One doesn’t usually ask “how do you plan on competing with (your main competitor) in the print media?” You just accept that they’re going to do their thing, and you’re going to do yours – and their landing a big article in the WSJ or BusinessWeek doesn’t mean that you’re not successful or that you can’t land similar articles. I’m not sure why we see social any differently.

So, you stay aware of what any competitor is doing, certainly. But you really ought to focus on your own strengths (in our case, our products are better than they’ve ever been, we have a game-changing electric vehicle coming out by the end of the year, and we have a strong team of people active in social), and build your strategies to leverage those strengths. If you’re creative enough, people will be citing your strategy and leadership as well.

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