Heard it on the grapevine

This is an article by Zoë Lavender.
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It’s almost 25 years since Grunig and Hunt described the two-way symmetrical model of public relations. Now Zoë Lavender thinks she may have spotted an example in practice at General Motors. Just in time.

At the end of 2007 PR Week dedicated a supplement to ‘digital essays’ delving into the world of social media. The key point: that if you don’t know about this as a public relations practitioner then on your head be it. The chances of any public relations student reading this article and not knowing about social media is quite unlikely (are you flicking back to Facebook as you read this?).

Zoe LavenderBut as students come up through the ranks do you hear enough good practice examples for this growing phenomenon? Without examples of social media working well and being used by organisations is it not at risk of becoming a public relations cliché or even seen, heaven forbid, as a fad?

General Motors, the largest automotive company in the world, can give us numerous examples of social media expertise. Back in 2005 GM began its social media education with the launch of two blogs, Fastlane and FYI, bringing with it the latest news and discussions about all things automotive. And last year GM Europe took a step toward social media interaction with the launch of an interactive newsroom getting the “online reporter” engaged. Three years on from the launch of the blogs it is GM’s 100th anniversary celebration. Showing the next steps of their social media education and moving them into their new century is the launch of GM Next (www.gmnext.com).

Launched on 3 January 2008 the website is designed to create dialogue and conversation with all of GM’s stakeholders. Sounds like Grunig and Hunt’s two-way symmetric communications model has been achieved at last. But it is still early days. How much will the social media content be used? Will GM sustain it? And how will the top leaders of GM cope if results of the campaign take years to materialise?

A launch interview with the Holtz and Hobson For Immediate Release podcast showed that GM is trying to adjust to the changing world of communication at a time when the automotive industry is going through its own major transformation. Stagnant markets, climate change pressures and alternative fuel technology pose huge challenges for companies like GM and its competitors. GM Next is one way of adjusting to this changing environment.

The website itself includes tools such as blogs, wikis, forums, videos, photographs and podcasts around five key themes: design, tech, ideas, green, reach. All stakeholders can get involved and employees are being encouraged to take part in the discussions and reflect back on their involvement in historic GM events. Employee involvement was viewed as crucial to the success of this campaign so it was launched internally at the beginning of December 2007. Week one saw over 13,000 global visits.

The GM Next webspace allows all people with an interest in GM whether employee, customer, dealership owner or journalist to become engaged with the company which is now opening its doors to the outside world – something rarely done by such a large, traditional organisation. As well as GM’s own interactive space it also recognises it will have to play an active role in going out to other social media conversations. To build trust and reduce cynicism they know they need to be part of the bigger community and conversation.

GM plans to involve the right people internally from the beginning to ensure the new ideas from the global conversation get to the decision-makers. If this is the case and GM does listen then we are one step closer to effective two-way communication. To be taken seriously by all stakeholders and to be a new frontier in the communication of global organisations the dialogue is going to have be continuous, long after the 100 year celebrations are over. And even though this is indicated to be the plan for GM Next the lack of measurable results in the early stages could jeopardise management’s belief in it working. f they sustain it, if this truly is the new way that GM is going to communicate with its publics, then as public relations students we have arrived in the workplace at the right time.

If you are graduating or just beginning we are here at the first launches and the growing initial stages. With some time and experience under our belt we are going to be around to see companies such as GM reap the rewards (or not) for their efforts if they manage to maintain, sustain and truly believe in the potential values of this form of two-way symmetrical communication.

Photo credit: Zoe Lavender

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