RAN vs. Car Culture Equals a Communication Breakdown

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Effective communication is not always easy. However, in order to accomplish anything when controversy or new ideas are on the table you’ll get nowhere if you can’t make yourself understood without souring the air. Speaking of the art of communications, I’m walking gingerly to articulate this post.
Yesterday morning Rick Wagoner, General Motors CEO, gave a keynote address to open the LA Auto Show. The main gist of the speech was to outline GM’s commitment to non-gasoline powered automobiles, in particular electric ones. His company is definitely not yet what I might call a “leader” in efficiency or green thinking, but they are making real steps in that direction. In particular, they announced that a plug-in Saturn hybrid is on the way, and rumor has it, something a lot more exciting will be announced in January.
At the very end of Wagoner’s speech, two official looking men took the stage and the following ensued: Click Here to watch video. The entire room was taken for a ride – who the heck were these guys? Read on for my reaction…


Turns out it was two representatives from the Rain Forest Action network. In case you didn’t look at the video, they pretended to be part of the show and unveiled a banner on which was written “I ___________ CEO of General Motors hereby pledge to make my company the leader in fuel efficiency by 2010″ (or something to that effect).
I actually thought it was pretty clever, and so did a lot of the assembled press. However, Mr Wagoner brushed it off and left the room. Then the protesters were swamped with media attention. That’s where it all fell apart.
One member of the press decided to launch into a rather heated attack. Watch part of the exchange here. Take special note of the tone of the comments below the video, and see his follow up interview here where he suggests taking the protesters out “to be thrashed”.
Be clear that the angry fellow in the video is NOT a representative of GM. You can read who he is on autoblog if you like. Although throwing a fit and threatening physical violence is certainly not cool, being unable to articulate oneself in the face of such a rant doesn’t help improve things either, espcially while critical ears are on hand. The RAN argument fell apart when their representative was unable to articulate enough facts about the EV1 and calm this guy down. I only critique it because I think admitting to the lack of facts and steering the conversation towards something else might have yeilded better results.
My point is that the result of this exhange was anger and misunderstanding on the side of the guy being asked to change. On Autoblog you can see how this anger radiates way outside the scope of the actual conversation. The result is that some people’s cynicism and distrust of environmentalists is reinforced.
RAN pulled a gutsy stunt which was rather amusing to me, but clearly not to this guy. Before dismissing him as a kook, recognize the level of influence he has and that agressive confrontation can backfire. I tell people all the time not to forget that large companies (and societies for that matter), however poor their performance, are made up of people who may live in quite different worlds from you but who basically want the same things. Finding the way to communicate without making them feel under attack is the key to both succesful persuasion and the revelation of your own shortcomings.
Of course, my whole hypersensitivity to this issue is based on the reaction of one guy and a handful of people on a website, none of whom work for GM as far as I know. I would be curious to hear GM’s candid response to the stunt, for all I know they are actually considering a pledge (who knows?). The guy who complained was pretty out of line – at least as much as the protesters if not more. Like it or not, RAN has accomplished an enormous amount of good, and they have done so sometimes via very confrontational means, which are sometimes both necesary and effective. Indeed, in some ways it’s their job to shake things up a little, which in this case may have worked just fine!
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ED NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, note that General Motors sponsored my trip and attendance at the Auto Show and I’ve really enjoyed their help in understanding the immense complexity of their organization which, like society at large, is slow to change but contains more thoughtful people than you might think.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He was instrumental in the creation of TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years as well as an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.