GM’s publicist sure knows how to take out the trash…or should I say, rubbish?

June 14, 2006 at 7:14 pm (Uncategorized)

I know that it has been awhile since I’ve posted…but I saw something today that demanded my attention.

On May 31, a particularly detrimental New York Times article ran about the supposed evils of GM. The article’s author, Tom Friedman, went beyond mere innuendos by flat-out accusing GM of supporting terrorists, buying votes in congress to advance its business agenda, and referring to GM as “a crack dealer” for encouraging America’s dependency on gas guzzling SUV’s. Later on in media interviews he admitted that the article had been a bit harsh, but opined that he had been justifiably trying to get GM’s attention.

In response, Brian Akre with GM’s Corporate Communications attempted to get a rebuttal published in the NYT Letters to the Editor section. Read about his struggle with the NYT on the GM FYI Blog here. So far the post has attracted 130 comments and about seven trackbacks. Not only did Akre include the original letter to the editor that NYT rejected, but he also included the entire e-mail exchange surrounding it. Interesting stuff that doesn’t reflect too well on NYT.

This is yet another testament to how blogging can open the floodgates of discourse and expose bad practice, much to the detriment of the scallywag who thought he could get away with it. I read quite a few of the comments, and the additional stories and observations only amplified the negative perception of NYT that this post sparked. One reader even said that he was planning on cancelling his NYT subscription as a result.

My favorite observation: A reader’s comment that despite the fact that in this case NYT refused to allow the word “rubbish” to be published in Letters to the Editor, they had allowed it barely a year earlier in another letter. Hypocritical much?

I don’t think I could say it better than RB Levin did in his comment:

“Now that’s some ballsy corporate blogging! Kudos to GM for leveraging the power of the blog to overcome the power of the pen.”



  1. Michael Morton said,

    The NYT seems to be having a public perception problem with all the bad publicity as of late.

    Good post! I was unaware of this particular issue.

    Keep on writting.

  2. Matt K. said,

    Sure, Friedman’s column may have been over the top (as he’s admitted), but isn’t that often the tool used in an opinion piece? (and, yes, I’m fully aware that op/ed is “opposite editorial” not “opinion and editorial”, but stating opinion is the nature editorializing)

    But seriously, isn’t it naive of GM to think that it would get any more space to rebut Friedman’s opinion than others would have to support it? Let’s flip the scenario — say GM published a weekly print newsletter and included a column that portrayed itself as a model corporate citizen…would GM then be supportive of and subsequently publish a long rebuttal letter? I highly doubt it.

    One more point: the comments posted on GM’s blog highlight the tendency of blogs to support “cocooning” — just like the people who listen to Rush Limbaugh do so at least in part because they tend to agree with him, so too is it the case the readers of corporate blogs do so because they support the organization. It’s hardly an accurate picture of the larger discussion taking place in the real world.

  3. Flackette said,

    Matt K.:

    I don’t think the issue was necessarily that Friedman wrote a controversial article (although using shock tactics is not typically thought to be a responsible journalistic maneuver).

    Rather, the issue is the fact that the NYT was so hell bent on significantly editing GM’s response, despite the fact that:

    1) NYT had already published 4 letters applauding Friedman’s article.


    2) Their supposed policy barring strong language such as the word “rubbish” in letters was obviously fabricated, owing to similarly strong verbiage used numerous times in previous letters.

    By no means was it naive of GM to think they were owed the opportunity to respond with a rebuttal. A newspaper is not meant to be a partisan operation, but is intended to provide readers with both sides of the issue so they can make educated decisions for themselves. A rebuttal from GM on the issue would have balanced coverage of the issue at the NYT.

    If GM had their own weekly print newspaper, its purpose would likely be the sole promotion of GM and no one else. They are not a national newspaper; they are not required to publish objective news; and those reading the newsletter would naturally assume there is a bias toward GM in the contents. There is no comparison.

    And as far as your “cocooning” argument goes–perhaps that is partly true. However, don’t forget that blogs spread like wildfire and can appeal to an incredibly wide audience. Just look at the incident with Lance Dutson, the blogger that was sued by an ad agency. Merely being a blogger interested you in the story, and people from all walks of life got in on the discussion. Perhaps it’s not a highly accurate picture, but you would have a hard time showing me another forum that gives a better representation of the dialogue. Anyone that ignores blogging conversations, whether cocooning occurs or not, is really missing the point.

  4. Matt K. said,


    You’re right – the issue is precisely that the NYT was “so hell bent on editing GM’s response”. And so, in response to your point 1), I suggest that it is perfectly reasonable that the NYT would edit the article for length so that it would not grant any more voice to GM as a single corporate citizen than it would to any more of the other four individual citizens who had already responded. As to those numbers, perhaps the simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of articles submitted to the paper were supportive of Friedman (there’s that darn cocooning problem again). Even if the NYT received and published 1,000 letters applauding Friedman’s article, that still would not grant GM the right to have equal share of voice to those 1,000 letters. That would be unbalanced. Now, if it is the case that the NYT received a relatively equal number of letters arguing against Friedman’s article, then I would agree that the paper was remiss in not giving equal share to both sides of the reader response.

    I’ll not go further into point 2), as I think the issue over removing the word “rubbish” is petty on both sides of the isle.

    On another point, I’d like to clarify that I wasn’t speaking about the newspaper as a whole, only a column written plainly as an editorial piece and known to all to be opinion. So the issue of being non-partisan does not apply, and thus I think my analogy to a GM newsletter – if imperfect – is still an acceptable comparison to make.

    But, as to your statement that a newspaper is not a partisan operation – whoa – have I got a doozy for you. Wouldn’t it just be dandy if newspapers really were as non-partisan as we all love to pretend? Why, golly, then there’d be no role for PR! After all, isn’t a great deal of your job oriented around using your media relations skills to affect a change in a reporter’s article (i.e., to create a positive bias or reverse a negative bias, however slight, for the benefit of your client)? Make no mistake about it, whether they’re writing news or opinion, news organizations ARE partisan and PR helps make it so. And that’s why clients pay PR firms money – it surely isn’t to generate neutral, non-biased articles about their products, services or corporate initiatives.

    As for my cocooning argument: sure, it’s not unfounded to say that blogs spread like wildfire and can draw lots of readers. But I’d still say that what draws most readers back repeatedly to a blog – as opposed to a single item on a blog that they then forget – is that the blog reinforces that person’s own view of the world. The same often holds true for why many people don’t read certain blogs. And what interested me in the Lance Dutson issue is not that he’s a blogger or that I’m a blogger (which I’m not) – it was the lunacy of the fact that the ad agency sued him and then the subsequent heralding of said dumb move by many bloggers as evidence that blogs had affected sweeping change on business communication models. It’s a neat toy y’all have and not entirely without merit, but I think it’s awfully premature to believe that the mainstream journalism and traditional methods of corporate communication are being rocked to their foundations.

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