How you describe your job and your responsibilities?
Interviewed by David Zatz at the 2016 New York Auto Show
I think my job is unique in the industry, because the job was created just for me. It didn’t exist before I got to Chrysler. But I have a digital communications team that combines web, social media, broadcast, and video production. I don’t believe that there’s another in-house department in the industry or in much of corporate America that exists like the department that we have.
So I’m the head of it. They created it around me because they’d never had anyone that had worked as I had: I worked in radio; I worked in television; I worked for the wire service, the AP; newspapers with the Detroit News. I worked for CNN; and then I came aboard originally to launch the Firehouse blog, the company’s first blog.
I had experience in all those different disciplines and they’d never had anybody quite like that. The only thing I’d never had experience in was PR but they didn’t want a PR guy for that job. They wanted somebody with the type of experience I had.
The gentleman who was second-in-charge of the department at the time, Mike Aberlich, it was his idea, his brainchild, together with Jason Vines that created this department around me. I was given ten people from disparate parts of the department; they said, “Here, go do something,” and we have.
We’ve evolved over the years. I came on in August of 2005 to start the first blog but October 1st of ’06 was when our team was formally created.
Ten people? I’m sorry, my mind’s still back on ten people.
I don’t have ten people any more, but we are, all told, including myself, we’re eight people. But it’s enough to get the job done. Most of us are ex-journalists. We like to be busy. The more work, the better. We can’t be overworked. It gives us an adrenaline rush. We’re used to that. Journalists are used to high workload and deadlines, so we love it. It’s just a great job.
As I recall, correct me if I’m wrong, but you also handle the customer-facing websites?
Yes and no. We don’t handle the brand sites. That’s done through marketing. The things that are customer-facing are our social media channels; from that respect, our philosophy is that once you’ve entered social media you’ve crossed that line from straight PR to touching the customer directly.
That’s what you’re seeing in a lot of the corporate world now, where you need to have that one-on-one relationship with customers and it can’t all be done through marketing. We’re not always selling them something. We’re conveying messages and philosophies and giving people information, and it’s a little bit different than doing pure sales and marketing. We’re in the information business.
I’ll contend that we actually coined the phrase corporate journalism. We started using it many years ago before we ever heard of anyone using it because we’re journalists and we work for a corporation. We tell the story. Hence corporate journalism.
The other part of the philosophy is we try to tell the story in a journalistic way. Now obviously we’re not going to get that third party to say “Yeah, but . . .,” but we try to tell it in a responsible and engaging and entertaining way just as when I did a story for CNN. You want people to be informed, but you want your stories to be engaging and to hit home, to make an impact. That’s our philosophy as well.
Do you think the mass of information available to customers now, it’s far, far more than they had say ten years ago even, does that make it easier or harder to market and sell?
A little bit of both. Let me give you an anecdote from before I worked at Chrysler, when I worked at the Detroit News. I was the GM beat writer, and I went down to Atlanta to do a story and the good old boy sales manager down there got off the phone with a young lady and said, “I hate the damn Internet. Them people know too much.” This is in 2004.
You know what? People now, with the advent of social media and companies learning how to use it as a tool, customers now are very much more informed and intelligent when they’re out shopping if they use those tools. It makes it difficult for people who are unscrupulous, who are trying to fool a customer, because they can’t. It makes it more difficult.
On the other hand, it makes it much easier to put forth your product because the customer is engaged. They have come in with an understanding of the product. They ask better questions. And for the most part they know what they want when they walk through the door. You go on a dealer’s website, look at the inventory, look at the features, and click, click, set up a test drive and it’s a much more satisfying experience all around. The last vehicle I bought, I did it that way. I completed a transaction in 15 minutes. And when could you do that? You could never do that.
I knew what I wanted. The guy had the car washed and ready for me, test drove it, liked it, bought it, done.
I have to go to your dealer.
Yeah, he’s a great dealer. He’s one of the closest ones to our headquarters and deals with Chrysler people all the time. They’ve got the system down.
You have a very good dealer. I’ve briefly dealt with Mr. Golling.
Yes, that’s who I go to. He’s a very nice man.
Does anybody fish through the social media responses or the forums that you see out there or third-party forums, even third-party social media, to find people who are having problems and try to bring them back?
Fish through it? I don’t know if I’d use that term. We do keep an eye on comments, criticisms on our channels that we refer to customer service. Our customer service department actually has people assigned to monitor and to engage a customer. If they’re unhappy, we’d swoop right in and ask them to make offline contact with us and we’d get the details of their situation and if it’s actionable then we try to help them. Sure.
How successful would you say that is?
Tough to tell. I couldn’t give you a percentage. You know, you have to parse out situations. If there’s a legitimate issue with the vehicle then chances are we’ll intervene and try to create some relief for the customer. There are situations though that it’s not a problem with the vehicle. It’s a problem elsewhere. And in those cases you still don’t want to lose the customer. We try to figure out a solution if there’s one possible. Sometimes there just isn’t one possible.
If someone abuses their vehicle, doesn’t service their vehicle, doesn’t take good care of it, and then they say they’re having a problem with the vehicle, well then we have to have a different type of discussion with them. I think that’s about as far as I can go on that.
Do you do hands-on customer testing when you set up your websites and you get them prepared?
The COD ones? We do. We don’t do a lot of it, but when we first launched the first version of COD [Chrysler on Demand] two years ago after a month or so we did a survey, then we did a follow-up one a couple months later, and now that we’ve relaunched it we’ll probably do another set of surveys to see how our users like the relaunch of it, the re-do.
We also have on occasion done surveys with the media regarding our media site, but we know reporters are busy and they don’t like filling out surveys so we try to keep it down to four or five quickie multiple choice questions, respecting their time, but we do need input from them. And quite frequently if they do have a problem or they’re happy they’ll tell us on their own. Reporters aren’t shy.
As far as our social channels, well, people comment. That’s the surveying that we do. We just read what they comment. On occasion they will try to reach out to us offline or through private messaging and we have conversations with them that way as well. We’re keeping our finger on it, we’re not operating in a vacuum.
How do you coordinate? You have your brand sites, the media sites, the social media, your COD. How do you coordinate all of that and decide on the scheduling?
Okay, there are a few different little streams going here. What goes on the media site is predicated by the communications department and they’re really scheduled; so my team doesn’t generate any releases, we merely process them.
Okay. When you say process them . . .
Well, a PR manager will create a release — a PR manager in charge of Jeep or financials or sales or whatever will generate and create the press release. When they’re ready to publish it, they go through our back-end of the media site, the content management system, to prepare the release and submit it for publishing. That pings my team with an email; a manager on my team manages the media site, and she’s be the first one to handle it. She has someone assisting her, and one of those two will take it the rest of the way to set it up for publishing. You can submit a release for publishing as far in advance as you’d like, and that creates a calendar. I can look in the content management system and see what releases are queued up so I know what’s coming; that’s one stream.
With social media, Mike Driehorst is our online editorial director and we have a document, a story sched, where all of my people that are doing stories – it’s just like a budget that you’d see at a publication, a story budget, with the slug, the description, and deadline elements. When I hold my full staff meeting, we go over the story sched and flesh out the story, to see what the elements are and what we can do to make them better, whether they’re Facebook posts, videos, even tweets and blog posts.
We do that, and then Mike has a separate meeting later in the week with our three editorial people, who we call multimedia editors. This is another unique thing that we invented; they’re like embedded reporters within the company, and they have beats just like a reporter covering brands, subjects, and they’re responsible for creating digital content pertaining to their beat.
Say a PR manager has a release ready to go about a new technology. We have someone on my team assigned to handle technology. They’ll talk to the PR manager that owns that subject and say “How can we enhance your release? How about a video? Can we create a social media strategy for you? How about a blog?” Now we’re starting to build a multimedia approach to the story.
So Mike will meet with the three multimedia editors; I’ll sit in on the meeting, but it’s his meeting. They’ll take that story schedule that I just described and then they’ll really flesh out an editorial calendar for all the elements that a story will have and when they will be posted.
Really, it’s a few different streams. For the COD site, that’s an aggregator. We discover the stories, I manage that site (for the most part) myself, and the rest of the team helps.
But the multimedia editors are responsible for finding stories in their beats and adding them to COD, and I’ve got to oversee that. If I see any stories that I really don’t think belong or should be featured then I make sure that they’re there. If I see anything that’s redundant, I get rid of it. We have a little carousel, the video carousel on the homepage now with the featured videos. I manage that, so I’ll rotate those periodically and look for new videos. Really, a lot of different things are going on at one time.
I was trying to figure out how you managed all that.
A lot of work.
What are the challenges of the expansion of what you’d define as media these days? From the traditional reporters when you started out, to now, when you walk around and there’s a thousand people with iPhones or Galaxys.
The challenge in any source of news, like a company or any entity, is that there’s no news cycle anymore which means that there’s no time to . . . there’s just no time.
People don’t take those beats that they used to take to double and triple-check things. They’ve got to go, they’ve got to go first, then go back and fix it later or not at all. To me it’s a disservice to the public because the first impression is the one that lasts and it’s hard to go back and undo misinformation.
As a former journalist — I still consider myself a journalist (only on the corporate side) — I believe in the journalistic process and fairness, accuracy, perspective, three major tenets of journalism. I would say with all due respect to people that call themselves journalists or purport to be that they don’t always or even care to adhere to those tenets.
Journalism is a profession for a reason. And maybe that makes me sound a little bit arrogant. I don’t care because I put my time in over many, many years and got my schooling to learn to be a journalist and learn best practices. By the same token I know how the business side of journalism works and I’ve had instances in my journalism career where legitimate stories were quashed because they were at odds with the advertising of the business.
From that standpoint, very independent-minded people who are online journalists that are finding information and have the ability to get information out to the public that might’ve been quashed by corporate entities that are running mainstream media are doing the public a great service. So now there’s a way to circumvent those controls of publishers and editors who are concerned about revenue and not necessarily getting all the news out.
I’ll give you an example. I was assigned a story on rising prices of used cars, and I spent the day with a gentleman who ran an auction — a very successful auction every Sunday, post-sale auction, and people could get very, very good values on used cars. I took a lot of pictures and was going to do a good story of service to the public.
The story was quashed, because the publisher said it would upset the used cars dealers that advertise in the paper. In this day and age, independent online journalists could get that story out without those concerns, without that interference. So from that standpoint that’s a very, very good thing. I love seeing those sorts of aggressive, fair-minded, smart journalists out there that are providing information to the public that they would’ve been deprived of earlier.
There’s a ton of information out there that would’ve never gotten out there, so that’s a good thing.
As long as you’re accurate and fair – it’s not too much to ask.
Would you take just fair?
No, accuracy is the cornerstone. You have to be accurate. Have to be accurate. The highest standard you can have is accuracy.
Everybody makes mistakes. If it’s an honest mistake, but if it’s inaccurate through carelessness, laziness, or just through you don’t care, well that’s abominable. That’s not acceptable. That’s not acceptable. You cannot call yourself a journalist. You could say “I write stories. I write things and put them online.” Okay, you could say that, but to me that does not make you a journalist. A journalist has to be accurate, has to be fair. Is that too much to ask, really?
It’s not too much to ask. Accurate, fair. But that’s where it comes back to the time. You don’t have that luxury of time anymore because people want to be first.
We used to have a joke when I worked in television that it’s “We want to be first.” We’d joke and say “You know, instead of ‘we want to be first,’ instead of saying ‘we’d say we want to be right,’” and I’d say “Well, I don’t know how to break this to you, but people only watch one TV station at a time. They don’t know if you’re first and really they don’t care. They just don’t care. It’s an advertising slogan.”
People want you to be right. They want to trust you. So honestly I just don’t think it’s too much to ask to be accurate.
If you’re not sure, ask another question. Find someone to corroborate the story. It’s not too much to ask. And the public has to demand it, and unfortunately right now they’re happy with whatever they read online. “Well, okay, I read it.” When you think that Wikipedia is where people get all their information, you know, really? Is that an authoritative source? No.
People have to demand the truth. They have to demand the truth, and unfortunately they’re not demanding it. They’re just demanding stuff. They’re demanding stuff to read. They’re demanding information, but they’re not demanding accurate information.
I think that’s a tragedy. If freedom of the press is such . . . if you were in countries where you didn’t have it, you know, you would feel terrible. I’m passionate about that. I don’t say it as an arrogant person that was a journalist.
When I first got hired I was just doing the blog and I went to this Blog-On conference here in New York, and some bloggers asked, “Just what do you consider journalists?” because with the Firehouse blog, you had to be a journalist to get access. It was a weird setup.
“What do you consider journalists?” I said well, it’s just what I told you: fairness, accurate, perspective. And they booed the crap out of me.
Then there was a lunch break and a guy that was one of the booers wanted to sit next to me. I thought “Oh, boy, I’m going to take a lot of crap now.”
He said, “I’m with you man. I just couldn’t show that in front of the other bloggers.”
You know, it’s just a crazy world out there, but I’ll tell you, it’s a lot of fun, and the fact that companies now and maybe customers and prospects or stakeholders can have this one-on-one communication is a fabulous thing. It’s a great thing.
So now whether you’re dealing with FCA or IBM or whatever companies, some big company, you don’t feel like you don’t have a chance to get your voice heard any more. You do. You get right to the CEO if you know where to go, so it’s a good thing.
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