Monday, December 22, 2008

Can Social Media Save Detroit?

Roxanne Darling at Bare Feet Studios recently wrote an outstanding piece on the use of social media at Ford. In How Ford Can Ramp Up It’s Social Media Turnaround Story of 2009 (nicely summarized by John Cass on Social Media Today), she outlines a social media strategy to help Ford become more transparent and connect more effectively with customers. She recommends new initiatives (such as getting executives using Viddler to answer questions directly from consumers) as well as building on the social media efforts already being led by Scott Monty.

Ford-CarChristopher Barger at GM has also been innovative, not just at getting the company involved with bloggers, but in the underlying concept of social media in general: listening to consumers and responding with sincerity and transparency. For example, at one gathering he insisted on seating Hummer executives at the same table with green bloggers. While the two groups certainly didn't come away agreeing with each other, they did at least increase their understanding of the other group's point of view.

(Chrysler, meanwhile, still apparently doesn't get social media, at least according to Noah Mallin.)

Regardless of the final form and extent of the auto industry bailout, what's abundantly clear is that the Big 3 can't put a bandaid on their current troubles and then continue to do business the way they have for the last 30 years. Congressional meddling is unlikely to help, but social media is part of what can.

Beyond creating a dialog with consumers, the automakers need to understand how to use social media for competitive research, and most importantly, for labor relations.

While the causes of the current problems in Detroit and many and complex, a big part of the problem is labor issues. This isn't to bash the rank and file, but more of a pox on both their houses: for years, the unions have been making unrealistic demands, and management has been agreeing to them. Time magzine reports that "GM's combined pension and retiree-health-care costs run $7 billion annually and have cost GM more than $103 billion over the past 15 years," as employees can potentially collect more than $100,000 in healthcare benefits after leaving the company.

The adversarial model of labor relations is broken. And while no one expects Rick Wagoner, Alan Mulally and Bob Nardelli to launch into a dance routine with Ron Gettelfinger and sing We're All in This Together, social media could bring a transparency, immediacy and honesty to worker-management relations that's never been possible before. Imagine a production line employee asking a question online and getting a direct response from an auto company executive on Twitter or YouTube—instantly and publicly, with no filtering through layers of management or labor spokespersons. Even more powerfully, imagine one of these companies, instead of hiring a social media evangelist, turning all of its tens of thousands of employees into evangelists by communicating, and then living, a vision beyond creating the next hideous crossover vehicle.

Obviously, it's going to take far more than a Blogger account and a ShareThis button to fix 100 years of counter-productive adversarial labor relations. But if management and labor ever decide to step off that broken treadmill, social media tools can provide a platform for a transparent, direct dialog.


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