SAN FRANCISCO -- If you glance at the Facebook page of General Motors, it seems like business as usual at the Detroit automaker, even though the company is struggling to cope with the recalls of 1.6 million cars that it has linked to 12 deaths.
GM's page promotes jobs at the once-bankrupt company, congratulates the winner of a Chevy photo contest and shows off the anti-slip technology on the new Camaro Z28.
But dig into the comments on those posts, and you will find customers like Donna Genader, who raged that her daughter "used every penny she had to purchase her dream car and instead she is stuck with a death trap on wheels."
You will also see dozens of messages back from GM customer service representatives directed at the commenters, trying to answer their questions about the recall and engage them in private messages to iron out individual problems, like getting a loaner car to Genader's daughter, Samantha, who owns a recalled 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt.
GM's dual approach -- going about its normal business while trying to help specific customers -- reflects the tightrope the company must walk on social media like Facebook and Twitter, where a customer's perceptions of a brand are shaped by both what the company does and what other people say about it.
"This issue cannot define GM going forward," said Dave Evans, vice president for social strategy at Lithium Technologies, a San Francisco firm that helps companies manage customer service on social networks. "They really have the opportunity to fundamentally redefine themselves as an open, transparent, listening organization."
Lauren Munhoven, the mother of a 2-year-old in Ketchikan, Alaska, turned to Twitter after wasting an hour on the phone with GM trying to get help with her 2006 Saturn Ion. Those Ions, and five other models, were recalled in February because of a defective ignition switch that, if bumped or weighed down by a heavy key ring, could turn off, shutting down the engine and disabling the air bags.
"GM your agents keep telling me to take my car to a GM dealer for the recall, after I've explained I live on an island in Alaska! Help!!!!" she wrote in a public tweet.
After a series of private messages with a member of GM's Twitter team, the company agreed to pay the $600 cost of a round-trip ferry to ship Munhoven's car to the nearest dealer, about 300 miles away in Juneau, and pay for a rental car for the time she is without the Saturn.
She credited the public nature of Twitter complaints for getting GM's attention. "Over Twitter, the service was a lot better," she said. She was so pleased that she posted a public thank-you on Twitter.
The automaker is primarily using conventional methods, like letters to customers, blogs, a call center and the news media to get its recall message out. A video message to employees from its chief executive, Mary T. Barra, for example, has received wide play on GM sites and elsewhere.
But social networks have also become an important tool for the company to show its commitment to making things right, even as it tries to show off its newest models and build enthusiasm among customers unaffected by the recall.
"We're trying to help customers out, but we are also trying to stay true to what the majority of customers are looking for," Phil Colley, a social media strategist at the company, said in an interview.
GM has a team of about 20 people based in Detroit that manages its social media presence -- including monitoring about 100 independent auto forums -- and responds to inquiries and complaints seven days a week. Another 50 people staff a call center, with as many as 50 more people helping out when call volume is high, as it has been since the recall began.
Amrit Mehta, GM's director of customer and relationship services, said the company's social media team tried to reach out to people to understand and resolve their specific concerns.
One challenge has been to tell customers that the cars are safe to drive while they wait for repairs, which will begin in April, as long as any extra items are removed from the key ring. Despite those assurances, many customers have requested loaner cars or free rentals. So far, GM has provided more than 6,000 loaners, the company said, including, in some cases, non-GM vehicles provided by rental car companies.
Roland Rust, a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland, who studies how companies manage brand crises, said GM's responsiveness online was "absolutely the right thing to do."
"If they don't respond to the customers, then those customers are going to continue to flame them," said Rust, who is also an international research fellow at the Oxford University Center for Corporate Reputation.
A robust public response is particularly important in wooing first-time customers, who are critical to the company's future profits. "They are thinking, I can either buy this GM car that I know kills people or I can buy something else," he said.
So far, the damage to the company's brand appears to have been minimal online.
Despite the barrage of headlines about federal investigations into GM's decade-long failure to issue the recall, overall sentiment about GM and its brands on Twitter has remained the same since the crisis began. According to an analysis by Crimson Hexagon, a social media analytics firm in Boston, about 26 percent of Twitter messages mentioning the company were positive, 71 percent were neutral and 3 percent were negative.
Consumers are not tweeting much about the recalls, said Elizabeth Breese, senior content and digital marketing strategist at Crimson Hexagon. "It looks like the conversation is generally being driven by auto, business and media authors."
But car owners are using social media to trade tips and put public pressure on the company on issues like giving affected customers loaner cars until their vehicles can be fixed when the parts arrive in April.
Samantha Garrett, a student at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery, Ala., who also works two jobs, has long had problems with the ignition and power steering on her 2005 Saturn Ion. When she heard about the recall, she quickly called GM and asked for a loaner vehicle, but the agent dismissed her concerns.
"I take car safety very seriously," she said, noting that her sister had died in a car crash and she herself had been in a bad accident. So she went on Facebook, posting several public messages on the site.
After much back and forth, a GM dealer finally gave her a loaner: a Toyota Corolla.
Garrett has joined a Facebook page called GM Recall Survivors, and she said that she would never buy another GM car.
"I just hope no one else gets hurt," she said.
By VINDU GOEL
The New York Times