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For car execs, Twitter is chance to show their human side

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By Vince Bond Jr., Crain News Service

DETROIT (Feb. 10, 2014) — The Twittersphere is probably the last thing on the mind of new General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra.

But she's officially in the Twitter big leagues now, a place where only a few C-suite auto executives are comfortable.

Ms. Barra's newfound superstar status ensures that her every tweet will catch the attention of journalists, analysts and consumers the world over, opening up avenues for scrutiny that executives never felt before the Twitter age.

Whether she leverages the Twitter spotlight to do damage control like Tesla CEO Elon Musk or to promote products like GM colleague Mark Reuss did with the Corvette Stingray is yet to be seen, but experts say the social pulpit has intriguing possibilities.

For one, it allows executives to engage with the public in an unfiltered environment—free from public-relations teams—on a one-on-one basis, and get their messages across as they see fit. The outspoken Mr. Musk, for instance, runs his own Twitter account without "any support or consultation" from the communications team, a Tesla spokeswoman confirmed.

"It allows [them] to be the advocates for the brand, or the ambassadors of the brand," said William Ward, a social media professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He added: "They could be a real model for how the rest of the employees could do it."

Ms. Barra's lightly used Twitter account erupted in December when news of her succession went public. Her follower count, which stood at fewer than 100 according to a Detroit News report, grew exponentially within hours of the announcement and has since crossed the 5,500 mark.

Few were watching her first tweet back in April 2013 that garnered a modest three retweets and four "favorites."

Not anymore.

Ms. Barra's only two posts since the announcement racked up more than 200 retweets combined. If she nurtures her presence on the site as her following grows, it's possible Ms. Barra could eventually do Musk-like numbers, where hundreds of retweets are commonplace.

Members of GM's social media team say Ms. Barra's human resources background could come in handy.

"You'll see her post occasionally," said Phil Colley, a GM social media strategist. "I don't know if there's going to be a regular cadence for it. It's going to be whenever she sees fit to get involved. Like anybody else, like we've done with Mark, we will give some best practices and some recommendations on what we think could be done.

Tesla's Elon Musk

"She's no rookie to public attention," Mr. Colley added. "I think she understands what she should and shouldn't talk about. That comes with the territory of being a CEO."

Mr. Musk, an outspoken but press-shy CEO, is continually testing those boundaries.

When Tesla's public image took a hit following reports of fires in three Model S cars that had been in accidents, Mr. Musk stepped directly into the fray, using his company blog and Twitter in unison to defend the electric sedan.

Mr. Musk shared three blogs about the fires on Twitter with his hundreds of thousands of followers—two of which were written by him, the other by the owner of a scorched Model S. The posts have tallied more than 3,200 retweets to date.

After posting his blog on Nov. 19, Mr. Musk wondered on Twitter why the Model S fires that injured no one got "more media headlines" than the "100,000" gasoline engine fires that kill hundreds each year. He also tweeted moments later that Tesla "extended the Model S warranty to cover any fire damage even if due solely to a driver accident."

But even Mr. Musk learned that such unfettered communication doesn't give him freedom to say everything he wants. Mr. Musk's in-your-face style caught up with him when his account of Tesla's dealings with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was publicly challenged by the agency's administrator.

Mr. Musk's NHTSA-related tweets in the aftermath of the fires have since been deleted.

In another instance, Mr. Musk openly criticized a February 2013 New York Times article in which a journalist wrote that the Model S he was test-driving in cold conditions stalled. Mr. Musk called the story "fake" on Twitter before releasing a retaliatory blog on Tesla's website.

Mr. Musk engaged with supportive Model S owners on Twitter during the Times spat by conversing with and retweeting them, a modern-age stamp of approval.

Social media consultant Kathi Kruse says she's fine with Mr. Musk tweeting on his own, but only because he "understands the medium." At the same time, Ms. Kruse said she realizes that his frankness can rub some the wrong way.

"Musk is a very progressive thinker. What you see is what you get. There's not a whole lot undercover," Ms. Kruse said, adding: "It might be off-putting to some people. It's been off-putting to me before I really understood him."

While Mr. Musk has the freedom to regularly wage battle on Twitter's frontlines, Ford Motor Co. employs a different tactic that keeps CEO Alan Mulally out of the line of fire.

Ford gives him Twitter access through its corporate account, where he can take questions from the public instead of tweeting on his own, wrote Scott Monty, Ford's global digital and multimedia communications manager, in an e-mail.

This tactic lets Mr. Mulally "engage with fans without the necessary upkeep and 'always on' approach that Twitter audiences seem to value," Mr. Monty wrote.

At Ford's crosstown rivals, execs appear to have freer rein, using their accounts not just to project brand images but to engage in conversations with one another.

GM's Reuss and Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's vice president of design and SRT brand chief, are known racing fiends who regularly share pleasantries before and after events. Each one tweets photos during races to give fans close-up views of pit row, marketing their brands while showing a human side.

This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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