The blogosphere. Social media. New media. Social networks. Chat. Online communities. The Web. The Internet.

Whatever one calls them, they represent a new way for corporations to interact with the public. And corporations had better do it, according to the man who leads General Motors' social media communications activities.

People angry about a company's product or service used to tell their neighbors. "Now they can share the information in their world, like that," said Christopher Barger, director of global communications technology at GM, as he snapped his fingers. "They control your brand. They control your reputation. Recognizing that and understanding that permanent shift is very, very important."

Barger, presenting the keynote address at Friday's Blogging for Business Conference, quoted several statistics showing the prevalence and popularity of social media, blogging and podcasting.

"Our job as communicators and marketers has always been to go where the audience is, to play where they play, to be where they are," he said. "This is where the next generation — that 100 million people that we need to reach — this is where they play. ... Whether we like it or not, this is where people are going for information."

The ramifications for companies are numerous, he said, because the trend represents a move of information brokering — and thus power — from "the few" to "the many." It also represents moves from mass to niche, from passive to active engagement, from corporate to peer authority, and from the corporate to individual voice. Audiences are taking control of both the medium and the message, he said.

GM's marketing budget includes $1.5 billion for online activities, and the company has a FastLane blog for "car people talking to car people." In April, it launched a new blog, just for its Saturn line. It also has invited bloggers to auto shows and an event to check out new car models each year. Those and other initiatives are designed to open a direct line of communication to the public and open as many conversations as possible with consumers, he said.

"Even when you're talking about your harshest critics, even when you're talking about people who have reason to be really angry with you, go out and start the dialogue, and if you do this right and you appear actually genuinely sincere, they're going to welcome the outreach for the most part," Barger said.

"There are going to be a few people who you will never reach — that's the way it is. But for the most part, they're going to want to hear from you even when they don't like all the answers."

The one-day conference also featured sessions on marketing, legal issues, the changing media landscape, social media for public relations, blogging for certain brands, engaging with a 21st century newspaper, and other topics.

"The reality is that any business that's not currently competing online will be left behind," said Matthew Reinbold of Vox Pop Design, which organized the conference. "And any business that's doing it half-heartedly will most likely get their lunch eaten by somebody that's really passionate and really engaged and really going after those audiences."


E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com