Social Media PR Disasters: Chevy Tahoe

In today’s digital world, customers now have access to the same mass communication tools once enjoyed by newspapers and TV networks, allowing regular people to broadcast their messages to the world. And sometimes those messages aren’t very positive.

How do brands respond? My ongoing series of Social Media PR Disasters finds the lessons not only in brands’ failures but also their successes. Today I’ll show you how a brand deftly navigated a disaster and came out looking both smart authentic.

The Brand
Chevrolet

The Incident
In 2006, Chevy promoted its 2007 Tahoe by posting video clips of the SUV, along with graphics and music, and invited fans to create their own commercials. The car company assumed the interactive element would draw a lot of participation, and that anyone who made a video would promote it to their friends.

The Problem
The editing application allowed users to create text that accompanied the images. Critics of SUVs’ notoriously low gas mileage and poor environmental impact began crafting commercials with captions like “We deforested the hills and strip-mined our mountains,” and linking Chevrolet to the Iraq War. The fact that these attacks accompanied official Chevy imagery made the commentary brutally effective.

The Response
As the negative videos became more popular than the positive ones, Chevy’s marketing team had to decide whether to pull them off the site. To its credit, the company chose not to take any action. A spokesperson told the New York Times“We anticipated that there would be critical submissions. You do turn over your brand to the public, and we knew that we were going to get some bad with the good. But it’s part of playing in this space.”

The Result
The carmaker claimed that 20,000 positive videos were made, compared to 400 negative ones. By allowing the latter to stay online, Chevy silenced critics who would have certainly called foul if the company had resorted to censorship.

 

The Takeaway
How can you avoid a social media PR disaster the way Chevy did?

– Acknowledge the conversation. You’re starting a dialogue, so be prepared to give up control. Two months after the campaign, Chvrolet General Manager Ed Peper posted on GM’s Fastlane blog: “Early on we made the decision that if we were to hold this contest, in which we invite anyone to create an ad, in an open forum, that we would be summarily destroyed in the blogosphere if we censored the ads based on their viewpoint. So, we adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate.”

– Think before you act. The urge to pull down the negative videos must have been very strong throughout Chevrolet’s marketing department. Doing so would have solved one problem but undoubtedly started another – and a larger one, as the story would have shifted away from the videos and focused on Chevy’s censorship. Luckily, Chevy brand mangers didn’t give in to the panic and realized the best course of action was to let the videos remain online.

– Be patient. Believe it or not, the bad press had no effect on sales of the Tahoe. In fact, in March of 2006, AutoBlog reported that “While nearly every other manufacturer suffered a decline in full-size SUV sales during the month of February, Chevy sold 15,431 Tahoes, a 42-percent improvement over [2005].”

Read my recent article on how United Airlines didn’t fare as well in avoiding a similar disaster.

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