TROY, MI – General Motors Corp. is rethinking how it communicates both externally and internally, a top executive says at a Marketing & Sales Executives of Detroit meeting here.

The auto maker is seeking to convey to consumers and employees, alike, that its North American turnaround strategy is on track and showing results, Gary Cowger, group vice president-global manufacturing and labor relations, says.

“Unfortunately, a lot of negative news about the company over the last 18 months or so has overshadowed some of the great new vehicles and some of our outstanding quality improvements,” he says.

Cowger blames the communication problem on too much media coverage and speculation, which he says contributes to an overall negative view of GM and its product lineup.

“There’s a lot of noise in the system, and that’s because we live in an age of transparency like the world has never seen before,” he says. “It’s almost too much information out there.”

Cowger says GM realized it needed to make sure its employees “completely understood what we were facing and continue to face the reality of our situation and not just the coverage that surrounds us.”

So in 1999, he instituted a new rule that required a “communicator” be based in every GM manufacturing plant and office to, “help ensure that our hourly and salaried team members would understand our business decisions, why we made them and what was behind it,” he says.

One important task for communicators was keeping employees informed of the sweeping health-care negotiations with the United Auto Workers union instigated by Cowger.

“I think the open communication with people at all levels helped facilitate our ultimate health-care deal, because everyone was convinced there was a problem and everyone was willing to work to solve it,” he says.

GM also set up internal online chats. The chats, which Cowger says occur “frequently,” generally include 40 pre-invited employees from the auto maker’s facilities around the world.

Participants aren’t required to reveal their identities, ensuring a degree of anonymity that creates a more open and honest environment, says Cowger, noting he routinely asks questions about how they view the company’s current position and the actions it is taking.

“They will tell you honestly and…in volumes what we should be doing,” he says. “I think it’s great for not only cutting through the clutter and getting to the heart of things, but it’s a way of building a better GM. Our employees are the best ambassadors, and we have to help change the public perception about our vehicles.”

At the same time the company is directing its communication initiatives inward, it also is ratcheting up efforts to reach those on the outside. GM’s new advertising campaign, for example, takes two distinct approaches – “rational and emotional.”

Rational marketing involves hard facts and numbers in ads placed in business publications, Cowger says, pointing out a recent ad titled, “What in the World is Going on With GM?”

“In that ad, we talked about some of the tough actions we were taking in the restructuring, particularly in North America,” Cowger says. “Another ad was aimed at slamming misperceptions (about our vehicles).”

To garner an emotional response, the 98-year-old auto maker evokes images from its past, present and planned future in one TV spot. Another demonstrates the company’s role in American culture by linking GM products with the nation’s historical events.

GM also is embracing new marketing tools, such as Web blogs and online advertising.

bpope@wardsauto.com