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GM generates heat with 'Times' blog rebuttal

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On May 31, New York Times columnist James Friedman lambasted General Motors on the Times' op-ed page. Likening GM to a "crack dealer" feeding Americans' addictions to SUVs, he concluded that GM is "more dangerous to America's future" than any other company.

GM executives were livid. They quickly fired off a letter to the editor. But GMers also did something else. They blogged.

The day after the Friedman column ran, GM communications executive Steven Harris posted a nearly 1,000-word rebuttal on the company's Fastlane blog, refuting the Friedman column.

A week later, GM communications staffer Brian Akre posted a blistering account of his negotiations with the Times over efforts to get a letter in the paper. His account made the Times look unreasonable and arbitrary. And he posted copies of the letters and his e-mail exchanges with the Times, too.

Friedman responded in the Times and GM answered again on its blog. In all, the GM responses totaled more than 2,800 words, or more than three times the length of the original Friedman column and 14 times the space GM says the Times offered for a rebuttal.

And this isn't over. The story has been covered in dozens of mainstream news media and is still generating daily coverage worldwide. Hundreds of people have posted comments on GM's corporate blog. BlogPulse and Technorati both count about 100 posts from bloggers on their own sites. The blogosophere may be buzzing about this for months.

By taking its case to the Web instead of the Times' editorial page, GM generated more buzz and awareness for its fuel-economy efforts than it ever would have created in print. "The Times did us a favor by rejecting our letter," Akre said last week in response to an e-mail query. "We not only got our messages across to a larger audience but we were able to expose all of our messages to the audiences that we wanted to target." Not long ago, businesses that felt they had been wronged by the media had little choice but to negotiate with their accusers for a small space for rebuttal. Sure, you could publish a statement on your Web site, but there was no way to make anyone read it.

Today, online social networks provide a powerful means to spread information by virtual word-of-mouth. You can't control the process, but if you can get the right people to read what you say, your message can propagate with breathtaking speed.

Marketing consultant and author David Meerman Scott has argued that the Internet has made public relations public again, after years of almost exclusive focus on media. He says businesses should use PR to go to the public. Businesses are catching on. JupiterResearch last month reported that corporate blog deployments will double this year.

GM's success at bypassing the media and taking its case directly to the public is evidence that the rules of media engagement are changing forever.

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