Nov. 04--When Chrysler executive Ralph Gilles used Twitter to slam billionaire Donald Trump for circulating false reports that Jeep production was moving to China, it became a textbook example of the opportunities and risks of executives on social media.
Despite the very public digital exchange Thursday, Gilles is one of just a handful of auto executives actively using Twitter -- which offers a direct and often unvarnished communication pipeline to the public.
That directness flashes danger signs in corporate public relations offices, charged with managing the image and messages of the corporation and its executives. One rogue tweet can be like a loose cannon thrashing about on the corporate deck.
The auto industry has embraced social media to spread news about products and to engage customers, but few auto executives -- and no major industry CEOs -- have their own Twitter accounts.
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For the most part, they've steered far clear of posting comments directly to Twitter, which has more than 141 million U.S. users, according to Paris-based Semiocast.
With some notable exceptions, GM and Ford said they don't actively encourage their executives to join Twitter.
Even Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose maverick reputation would seem a perfect fit for Twitter, is nowhere to be found on the messaging service.
And when high-level CEOs do decide to join, someone steeped in corporate PR gives them tips on what to do, what not to do and how to use the tool.
"When you look at the Big Three, they're not as personality-driven since (former Chrysler CEO Lee) Iacocca stepped down," said Charlie Wollborg, founding partner of marketing firm Curve Detroit. "If Iacocca were sitting in the seat today, you can be damn well sure he'd have one because he'd want to talk to the public directly."
Stiffness or caution?
Are auto executives still just too stiff for social media?
Or are they just applying a sensible dose of caution in a hypercompetitive business in which every statement is followed closely by reporters?
"You have to understand when you're at a very high level, whatever you say is going to be given extra scrutiny," said Bud Gibson, an Eastern Michigan University marketing professor and social-media expert. But "most of them are very canny about not revealing secrets."
To be sure, auto executives are generally accustomed to dealing with the news media and are savvy enough not to say anything too revealing or salacious online.
But even the most dispassionate executive can get drawn into a digital tussle.
Gilles apologized Thursday in a follow-up tweet for using profanity while still calling the Donald a liar.
Chrysler declined to comment on the exchange, which extended into Friday when Trump tweeted back that Gilles "is full of it." Gilles tweeted his own retort, offering Trump an impromptu lesson in the business of "localization," also mentioning Chrysler's well-known plans to expand operations at its Toledo, Ohio, Jeep plant.
After Gilles' pointed response to Trump went viral, he tweeted that he had "no idea 5 words would blow up like that today!"
That's not to say his initial tweet didn't accomplish what he had hoped for. His original tweet was "retweeted" or forwarded 4,000 times by followers.
"What is so great about it is the immediacy -- that you don't have to go out through your communications team, that it doesn't have to be filtered," Wollborg said. "You know he said that."
Other auto executives have their own accounts, including General Motors North America President Mark Reuss.
After GM revealed a new emblem for the Chevrolet Corvette, he posted a picture of the logo on Oct. 18 and asked, "Time to get a tattoo?"
"It gives him an opportunity to amplify good news, and I would say Mark uses it to set the record straight," GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said. "It keeps him well connected. He knows then what's going on."
Ford CEO Alan Mulally has answered questions through live Twitter Q-and-A sessions, and Hyundai U.S. CEO John Krafcik often tweets directly to the South Korean automaker's main Twitter account (@Hyundai), signing his posts "jfk."
"It allows you to be more direct with people," said Scott Monty (@ScottMonty), Ford's manager of digital and multimedia communications. "I'm not saying they should be off-message, but it gives individuals more access to the company and gives the company the ability to humanize itself and to bring the face out from behind the logo."
On Friday, after Hyundai acknowledged that it had unintentionally inflated fuel economy ratings on some of its vehicles, Krafcik told customers in a tweet that "we've created a website with the most up-to-date info on our fuel economy reimbursement plan."
Mary Henige (@MaryHenige), GM's director of social media and digital communications, said Twitter "makes a lot of sense when you've got a consumer-facing brand."
Sometimes it's the emotion Twitter followers want to see. After all, Gilles' tweet was widely praised as a moment of candor.
Gibson, the Eastern Michigan professor, said Gilles' tweet was "a pretty calculated use" of social media to undercut a bizarre rumor that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney perpetuated on the campaign trail and in advertisements last month.
"Social media is clearly a direct pathway for these folks out to the rest of the world," Gibson said. "If they time their remarks properly, they can have a big impact."
Monty said Ford encourages its executives -- and, in fact, all its employees -- to think twice before posting a potentially controversial comment.
"Even if there is some incorrect information out there, there's a way to go about correcting it," he said. "And we ask anybody who's engaged in a highly emotional debate to step away from the computer for a few minutes or an hour or a day to let those emotions subside."
(c)2012 the Detroit Free Press
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
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