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Financial Times: GM invites green critics to join online debate

By Bernard Simon in Toronto
Published: February 7 2008 02:00 | Last updated: February 7 2008 02:00

An assault by environmental activists on General Motors’ 100th-anniversary website has turned into a pioneering online chat between the carmaker and its critics.

Brent Dewar, GM’s vice-president for North American field sales and service, spent an hour yesterday fielding questions from environmental campaigners and others on the subject of “corporate greenwashing”.

GM set up the website www.gmnext.com only last month as a springboard for ideas on future automotive technologies.

The site was immediately bombarded by the carmaker’s critics.

Posts included pictures of protestors at the Detroit motor show calling on the industry to combat climate change and to create more environmentally friendly jobs.

GM took exception to some posts that, it said, used “this platform as a soapbox to spew diatribes loaded with propaganda”.

It soon closed down the site’s interactive element, saying: “We weren’t going to lose control of our own site.”

GM is not the first company to have had its best-laid plans to burnish its green credentials go awry. Royal Dutch Shell recently cancelled a wildlife photography contest after vocal protests by environmental groups.

But GM has found ways of fighting back. Over the past year, it has invited dozens of bloggers to car shows across the US, setting up face-to-face interviews with senior executives.

Questions for Mr Dewar’s session yesterday had to be submitted by e-mail.

Besides other GM executives, the carmaker plans to invite scientists and other outsiders for online chats. “We want to get as many voices in this debate as possible,” a company spokesman said. He added that: “We can’t just pick the friendly questions if we want this to be a credible conversation.”

Shel Holz, a public relations consultant, wrote on his website that “nobody has accused GM CEO [Rick] Wagoner of being a stupid man. If GMnext succeeds, expect a lot more companies to start looking beyond models that broadcast messages into the social media space”.

Yesterday’s session won grudging respect from GM’s critics. “This is a great chance to speak directly to a major corporate executive,” California-based Rain Forest Action Network, a west coast-based group, advised its members.

“Bring your tough questions and your critical thinking skills.”

Additional reporting by Fiona Harvey in London.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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