SXSWi 2010: Chris Barger on changing communications at General Motors

Did social media help GM build a better public image?

From South by Southwest Interactive 2010: Chris Barger, social media lead for General Motors, discusses how social media has changed the communications strategy at GM.

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Scott Laningham (scottla@us.ibm.com), developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.



14 April 2010

developerWorks: Scott Laningham at South by Southwest Interactive 2010. I'm in the Chevrolet [Volt] Recharge Lounge, which is where I've met a number of people that have some really great conversations and ran into an old IBM® friend who is now the ... well Christopher Barger, why don't you tell people what you do at General Motors?

Barger: Sure. I am the director of social media for all of GM. And you know that basically encompasses any sort of non-traditional or Internet-based communications medium or platform.

developerWorks: And I think the first reaction to that is "Oh, my. What a job you have had over the last couple of years."

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Barger: Funny — that was my reaction, too. [LAUGHTER]

developerWorks: You moved to GM three years ago.

Barger: Three years ago this month, yes.

developerWorks: So what timing.

Barger: Yes. You know, they didn't mention anything about this in the interviews.

developerWorks: They didn't let you know that was coming? That wasn't built into a bonus plan or anything?

Barger: No — nothing like that, you know.

developerWorks: So what has it been like? I mean, I'm sure you could talk about that forever.

Barger: Sure. It's ... well, it's aged me about 10 years, but it was really good. I've got more experience in crisis communications and thinking on your feet and rapid response in the last 18 months than I could have gotten in 18 years almost anywhere else.

developerWorks: I can imagine.

Barger: And while it's been draining and tiring, it was also a heck of a learning experience. We all kind of grew into it together. I think we did a great job during the filing period and during, you know, the worst parts of the business situation. I think we did a great job sort of learning on the fly and plugging into the social community and Twitter and Facebook and all the rest of that really well.

And what we're learning now as the business is getting better and things are turning around, so many of the lessons that we picked up then we can now apply now that we can go out and be proactive again and now that we're starting to get back on our feet. Everything that we learned during the last year and a half is paying off now. So it's been tiring and it's been hard, but it's been really, really good.

developerWorks: What part did the social media strategy play during this recent year? I mean, how were you using it?

Barger: It was one of the primary communications media that we had. When it became clear ... actually we didn't realize for sure that, you know, the Chapter 11 filing was going to happen until May 26 so we had really one week to ramp up and get ready to go.

And you know, we've got the consultants on the outside who are saying, "You know, there's never been a company that's gone through this with an active social media program and this is risky. You know, there's potential reward, but we see a lot of risk."

And I remember a lot of us looking around the table and just, you know, looking at leadership and going, "What are we going to do, bankrupt the company? How much worse can it possibly get? We need to do this."

We were about to gain between U.S. taxpayers and Canadian taxpayers 330 million new stakeholders and shareholders, and they expected us to be talking to them and giving them information, so let's go out there.

The morning of the filing, we had an extended team of 12 people — some monitoring blogs, some monitoring our blogs, some of them on Facebook, a lot of them on Twitter. And the balance that we tried to strike was about 20-25 percent information that we're pushing out and the rest of it was people have questions, people have responses to what's going on.

We're going to be as open and candid and transparent as we can during this process, answer people's questions, let them tell us that they're unhappy, let them tell us whatever they want to tell us, and we'll answer as much as we can.

What surprised me ... after six days at South by [Southwest], my voice is totally gone.

developerWorks: I started with no voice, so I feel your pain.

Barger: What surprised me was during the months leading up to the actual filing, we had a lot of negative sentiment out there. There were a lot of people who made it personal and were real angry. The week of the filing, we expected to get beaten up, and it didn't happen.

Instead, what happened was a whole wave of positive sentiment coming in, much to my surprise — people going, "Wow. I can't believe you guys are out here today. I can't belief you're actively engaging on Twitter. You're actively on Facebook. Good for you, and hang in there guys. It's going to get better," which we all really needed at that point.

So it was really cool between Web chats, Twitter chats with leadership, Twitter chats with just us regular folks, Facebook interaction, blog interaction. We took part in more than 800 conversations that first week alone, with people that were out there, everybody from big players like David Meerman Scott all the way down to just regular consumers who had questions.

And we learned a ton. We learned what people were particularly concerned about. One of the great stories we have was via our then-chief of sales and marketing was announcing the dealership situation and that we were going to be paring down the number of dealers. And while he's on stage at the press conference, we're watching Twitter and somebody sees, one of our people sees a tweet that says, "Hey, GM — you should be shutting all the company-owned stores, not taking out the little guy." Well, we don't have any company-owned stores. And that wasn't really very clear.

So very quickly we were able to send a text message to his PR guy, who was on the stage right there, going "Hey, have Mark clarify there are no company-owned stores." And very quickly he put that into the conversation live that he was having with the press conference. It was a great way of sort of being able to understand what the audience really wants us to address.

developerWorks: Wow. That's powerful.

Barger: Yes. It was cool.

developerWorks: That takes that traditional idea of the news anchor who is being fed information by his editor to a whole other level.

Barger: Absolutely.

developerWorks: When you can tap into the crowd. I mean, the extended universe of listeners and respond like that.

Barger: It does. And the cool part of it and the part that makes this really truly social, it wasn't "Hey, he's missing this message. Make sure he says this." It was "Somebody out there wants to know or somebody has this concern." So it really was a way to incorporate audience concern, audience feedback, and input into the conversation we were having.

developerWorks: How much of an embrace of social media has there been post the crisis than pre the crisis? Has it changed a lot?

Barger: It has. The silver lining in the cloud is that we went through forced all of us to think really differently about how we build, how we go to market, what kind of relationships we have to have, how we do things.

And the difference between pre-crisis and now post- in the embrace of social media has been tremendous. All the brands are now starting to really get active. It used to be the first year or two that I was here, it kind of went through my central team and I kind of led the whole thing.

Now it's very much shifted to a counselor's kind of role or an advisory role. And some of the brands don't even need it. You know, Chevrolet, in particular, is really strong; I barely have to be part of what they're doing anymore other than just sort of keeping and eye on it or being aware of it. They're running their own strategy at this point, which is exactly as it should be.

developerWorks: Tell me what you're doing here at South by Southwest.

Barger: Having a lot of fun and losing my voice, for one. The overriding strategy that we had when we came down here ... first of all, this is sort of a coming-out for us, coming-out party, in that for most of the last year and a half, we've had to be very reactive, hunker down in the towers just trying to respond to people.

We haven't been able to sort of be publicly out meeting people, interacting and learning. This is our first step back in the pool. And it's been remarkable. We came in with the strategy or the idea that this is not an auto show, this is not a Chevrolet event — this is the attendees' event.

The people are coming to South by [Southwest] for their own reasons and to learn a lot of things. Our job is to be part of that experience, not to impose ourselves upon it, but to be part of it. So what can we do to help people have the experience they're already here to have? How can we amplify or maybe ratchet it up a notch or two? So we've built everything around that idea.

Our main presence here on the floor is, as you mentioned, the Volt Recharge Lounge. That was kind of serendipitous. It worked out really nice for us. When we started brainstorming, a few of us were here last year, what do people really need? What will help them? Well, you know, batteries on your iPod or your iPhone, excuse me, or your laptop.

developerWorks: Great idea.

Barger: Let's give them a place to juice up. Let them charge up. "Oh, hey — charge up. We have an electric car coming out." So it just kind of fell together really nicely.

developerWorks: How many people have walked in here and said, "OK — where is the Volt? I want to see the Volt."

Barger: You know, a lot of them are. And the nice thing is we do have a real live pre-production development Volt. I mean, it looks like the real one is going to look. It has all the features that the real one is going to have. It's just the development vehicle that we're testing right now. It's on the sidewalk seven feet outside the door.

developerWorks: Is that it right there?

Barger: The gray one, yes.

developerWorks: That's the Volt?

Barger: That is the Volt.

developerWorks: Oh, I'm doing to go look at it.

Barger: We've got to go take a look at it when we're done.

developerWorks: Yesterday, you had the two Camaros out there.

Barger: Right. And the reason we did that, we had drives going on. For a lot of reasons, you can't have a development vehicle on public roads. But obviously, there are a ton of influencers here, so we set up a closed course at a mall parking lot about five miles outside of downtown here, and we've been taking people over, Robert Scoble, Guy Kawasaki, Leo Laporte, Jason Falls ... took a lot of the players out there.

So, you know, I'm a PR guy, you know. We're smart. We can do good communication strategy. Let's find the most influential people that we can to get their shot in and tell us what they think. So we were bringing all these guys out for drives. That's why it wasn't there for the last couple days. It was driving around.

developerWorks: Hey — I have 145 followers on Twitter. What do you think? [LAUGHTER]

Obviously, this lounge is a great idea. The power. I'm sitting here interviewing people, and folks are coming up and plugging in right in the middle of what we're doing, which is cool, you know.

Barger: It is.

developerWorks: That's part of the beauty of this event, is just this great give and take and comfortable interaction.

Barger: And it really is. And that again sort of feeds into, that's what people are going to, are here to do. If we were putting on a hard sell while they were here, if we were having product specialists running around going "Hey, while you're here, let me tell you about ..." it wouldn't work. You know, we really just wanted to try to be part of this.

And on a personal level, a little case study, and I thought this was awesome, I've been working, so I've been stuck at the Austin Convention Center the whole time. Well, my son is almost 8. He'll be 8 at the end of this month. And anytime I'm gone on a business trip, he'll go to the computer and Google up wherever daddy's going.

When he Googled Texas, when you get to the Google images, an armadillo popped up, and he became obsessed with armadillos. So my assignment for this trip is to get him a stuffed armadillo. And to the point where when I was saying goodbye, "I said, 'Buddy, I don't know where I'll find one, but I will try." And he looks up and he says "If you don't, you don't have to come home." [LAUGHTER]

developerWorks: You don't have to come home?

Barger: He's totally playing and having fun with it.

developerWorks: We've got to start working on the armadillo hunt, then.

Barger: It worked.

What I did was sent out a tweet going, "Hey, I'm stuck here. I'm on a mission. My 7-year-old wants an armadillo." The first person to bring me to the Volt Recharge Lounge gets to come with us to dinner tonight with a whole bunch of — you know, it was a private event with a whole bunch of influencers in the social Web. It took eight minutes. I had an armadillo here in eight minutes.

developerWorks: Holy cow.

Barger: It was real ... and just on a personal level as well as the branding level, this is, how cool is this?

developerWorks: That is way cool.

Barger: It was just... and then the guy went to the event and again, there are guys, CC Chapman is there, David Meerman Scott is there, Peter from HARO, Peter Shankman, is there. All these guys are there. And they're all looking at him going "You're the armadillo guy!" [LAUGHTER]

Now he's kind of tied in with that crowd. It was a really neat thing to do.

developerWorks: I'm so glad I ran into you, man, and had the opportunity to speak again. It's good to reconnect.

Barger: I'm glad to catch up with you, man. So, let's go take a look at the car.

developerWorks: Christopher Barger, armadillo guy, who is also making sure now that General Motors company is plugged in and recharging using social media all the time. That's what you're doing, right?

Barger: Yes, sir. We're doing our best. Thank you.

developerWorks: Appreciate your time, man.

Scott Laningham again at South by Southwest Interactive 2010 for developerWorks. Talk to you soon.

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