By Keith Naughton
Updated: 1:38 p.m. ET March 10, 2007
March 10, 2007 - GM may have to hand over its crown to Toyota this year, but it's determined to beat its Japanese rival in at least one race: the Newsweek.com's readers poll. In an online survey accompanying a story I wrote with Allan Sloan about why Toyota is overtaking GM as the world's largest automaker, Newsweek.com asked readers this week which company they thought made a better car. On Monday, Toyota was several laps ahead of GM, by an 80-20 margin. But by Friday, GM was leading by an 83-17 margin, as the total respondents had mushroomed to 80,000 from 14,000.
Turns out GM was orchestrating a get-out-the-vote campaign that would make Karl Rove proud--something that became clear to me when a GM employee called me on Thursday, frustrated that our software wouldn't let him vote twice. (You can't). It seems that on Thursday morning, GM PR
official Katie McBride had sent an e-mail blast to the company's worldwide workforce of 318,000 and 7,000 dealers, asking them to vote for GM in our poll--a highly unscientific survey, like all internet polls that invite audience participation. "It's time to stand up and tell the world we're proud of who we are, what we build and how important we are to the U.S. economy," she wrote, including a link to our website.
If GM is embarrassed to have been caught ballot-stuffing, the company isn't showing it. When I called Katie McBride Friday afternoon to ask about her e-mail (which I learned of from a reader's comment), she readily admitted she'd written it. She told me she'd received "six or seven" e-mails from co-workers around the world who were trying to generate votes for GM on the story. "It was going on out there virally so extensively that we thought we should make people aware of it," she explained. "People could vote however they choose to vote. There was no intention of doing anything underhanded."
GM's top PR
man makes no apologies, either. "I don't see anything dishonest about it," said Steve Harris, GM VP of Global Communications, who directed McBride to send the e-mail. "Did it skew your survey? Very possibly. But I don't see that as a problem." When I gave Harris the latest results showing GM with a lengthening lead, he was ecstatic. "I think that's great," he said with a laugh.
Did GM do anything unethical? After all, internet polls are driven by reader passions, and are more a form of web entertainment than meaningful measures of public opinion. "No, I don't even find it distasteful," says Poynter Institute journalism ethics instructor Kelly McBride (no relation to Katie McBride). "It sounds like good old-fashioned politics. And it shows that GM has a lot more loyal employees, or maybe desperate employees, than we may have thought."
Toyota found the whole thing amusing. "If GM feels they need to do this, then let them rock and roll," says Irving Miller, Toyota U.S. VP of PR
. "But if I were a general consumer and saw that lopsded number (in GM's favor), I'd say, 'this is crazy,' and not put any credibility into it." The bottom line, though, is that Toyota's U.S. sales are up 10.9 percent this year, while GM's are off 6.4 percent. That's one vote GM is finding difficult to reverse.