Special Biz Blog Profile Series: TheFirehouse.biz - DaimlerChrysler

10/17/2005

Biz Blog Profiles is a behind the scene look at how corporations, non profits, higher education institutes and arts organizations are using blogs to support their marketing goals.

I can come clean now. Or rather Ed Garsten, Editorial Director of the famous Chrysler Group Media Blog - TheFirehouse.biz, can step out from the shadows.

A few weeks ago I posted about my experience knocking on TheFirehouse.biz door and not being allowed in. The post resulted in a lot of play in the blogosphere. When I contacted Ed, he filled me in on Chrysler's rationale and agreed to let me post our conversations...if I kept his identity secret. How could I resist a little Deep Throat intrigue? So Ed became "mysource" in the posts.

Recently, Ed allowed me access to Firehouse.biz. I'm one of a handful of people, who don't have media credentials or is not an industry analyst allowed in. He also graciously agreed to provide a special Diva Marketing Biz Blog Profile interview. Our interview is one of only two that Ed has given about Firehouse.biz. The other was with Debbie Weil who offers a slightly different approach to this media-only blog story.

Sidebar: This blog is available only to the media and industry analysts. While most of Diva Marketer's readers may not be able to access the blog, I felt that the interview with Ed Garsten provided valuable insights and offered an inside look at how a Fortune 100 company approached blogging. DaimlerChrysler was ranked #5 in Fortune Magazine's 2005 Global List. It might surprise you that some of the challenges facing TheFirehouse.biz are similar to those of many business bloggers. Besides, it seemed only right to let Ed tell his side of the story.   

Firehouse_logo_1Biz Blog Profile: TheFirehouse.biz Blog

About DaimlerChrysler AG
The company was created in 1998 with the combination of the former Daimler Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. DaimlerChrysler AG has headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany and Auburn Hills, MI. The company produces vehicles under the brand names, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz.  Juergen Schrempp is chairman and CEO. He'll be replaced in January by Dieter Zetsche, former Chrysler Group president and CEO, who now heads Mercedes-Benz.

About TheFirehouse.biz Blog
First...if you to to the Welcome category, there is a full explanation of TheFirehouse name and the philosophy behind the site. In a nutshell, for the past several years DaimlerChrysler has rented out an old firehouse across the street from Cobo Center, where the North American Auto Show is held each January in Detroit.

The firehouse is converted into a nightspot where reporters can relax after a hard day of covering the show - grab a burger and something to drink and have some relaxing conversations with some of our executives. In that same spirit, we named the media blog TheFirehouse.biz - a place where reporters can engage in an honest, open exchange with our folks and themselves in a relaxed atmosphere.

How Did The Chrysler Media Group Prepare To Launch TheFirehouse.biz Blog?
The communication group here is well aware of the blog world and follows several auto-related blogs such as Autoblog, Autoextremist, and The Car Connection among others. We also consult regularly with an outside IT firm that manages the technical aspects of the blog, but is a valuable resource on content and strategy. I personally polled a number of experienced and respected auto reporters and took their views into consideration before the blog was launched. To a fault, all were enthusiastic and had no problem registering. All were grateful for the opportunity to communicate in a closed environment.

Was A Corporate Blog Explored? Why Start With A Media-only Blog?
The company is still planning to launch an open blog, but I can't say any more than it was just an internal decision to go with the media-only blog first. Our Chrysler Group Communications VP Jason Vines love the interplay with reporters and they love communicating with him. Besides, there are already so many corporate blogs and this company enjoys, as it always has, going against the grain and plowing new ground. That's what we did with such ground-breaking products such as Dodge Viper, PT Cruiser, Prowler and the early 90's cab-forward cars such as Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Interpid. Remember, it was Chrysler that invented the minivan and created an entirely new vehicle segment.

We love to break the rules, and by the way, who made the rules in the blogosphere? -- seems like some self-appointed circle. For a great analysis of what we did, please see Kevin Holland's posting on The Association Blog.

The fact is there are no rules. Blogging is a constantly evolving, and wonderful, form of communication and we fully intend to use the same rule-breaking philosophy we've used for so many years in developing products, in exploring new ways of using it. Here's my basic philosophy, which matches my mandate here:

Blogging is still an evolving medium that different constituencies will begin to use in ways that make sense to them. We're not about exclusivity or secrecy. We're about communicating with a certain subset of people and aiming our content toward them with "Firehouse."

How The Firehouse.biz Blog Was Promoted To Target Audiences
I also want to say that I've seen some blog postings ranting that we did a big PR push to publicize the blog then closed it in everyone's face. That couldn't be further from the truth. We intentionally spent almost nothing to publicize the blog since we wanted to avoid the type of disappointment that some have experienced. The only real effort was handing out some invitation cards to journalists at September's Frankfurt Auto Show.

We already had mailed a monthly V-Gram to several hundred auto beat reporters - it was a fun, informative newsletter from Jason Vine. We sent those reporters pre-registration invitations via email a few days before the blog officially launched. The invitations clearly stated TheFirehouse.biz is opened only to the media. Inevitably, once the site was launched, some folks stumbled on it, while others were led to it by reporters who registered and been allowed access.

Unfortunately, those who did not qualify for access received emails telling them so. A few were evidently put out, or confused, and the page that the non-media members would be denied access that has been corrected - Firehousebiz_blog_1005thank you Toby for calling that to our attention.
Sidebar
: Click to enlarge.

As far as the legal language is concerned, our legal team fully vetted it, consulting current case law and language used on similar blogs.

You've mentioned a few other style and content issues in critiquing our site. I appreciate that sort of input and we're always looking at ways to improve TheFirehouse.

Your Title is "Editorial Director." What Are Your Responsibilities?
I was hired as editorial director because I've been a journalist for 32-years - 16 as an automotive reporter. I was the CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and Correspondent for 12 years until the network closed the bureau and sent us packing. After that I was the national automotive reporter for the Associated Press and most recently, GM/Delphi beat for The Detroit News.

My current job is to oversee editorial content for the blog, making sure it's relevant, accurate, and responsive to the needs of the automotive and marketing press. I help DCX contributors in writing their comments, paying close attention to subject matter, style, and accuracy. I also monitor registrations and comments and have the authority to accept or reject any registration if the person does not meet our criteria for access.

Comments are never edited, but they will not be posted if they contain personal attacks or do not pertain to the subject matter. If a reporter simply wants to ask a question, it will also be posted and we attempt to post an answer ASAP.

As part of my position, I will interview executives and attend media events to provide sidebar, or back-story material for reporters. Sometimes I shoot photos that would not generally appear on our media site. Really, I'm sort of an "embedded reporter."

How The Firehouse Blog Fits Into Chrysler's Public Relations/Marketing Strategy
The Firehouse blog is an important cog in the company's public relations strategy in that it is another means of spreading our message while affording reporters an opportunity to post their feedback on issues, events, products, etc.

After almost a month in operation, we're beginning to find our voice. It's a work in progress as I look for topics and content I think will trigger additional coverage of DaimlerChrysler, and especially the Chrysler Group. From the time you wrote to me (September 14th) we began to learn what would trigger responses; I expect to see that trend continue. Keep in mind, reporters don't have a lot of time to tap out comments or questions, and our expectations do not include long strings of point-counterpoint, as may be seen on other blogs. We're merely offering the opportunity.

Most of my off-blog email is from reporters wondering what's next, as they become conditioned to log on to the site as part of their regular news gathering routine.

The Blogosphere Buzz About TheFirehouse.biz Blog
I think the initial firestorm, as you call it, regarding our site, was flamed (sorry) by a few factors. The inability to gain access by those not meeting our criteria obviously made it impossible for a lot of folks to see what we were doing. That closed door, I'm sure, sparked some resentment, confusion, anger, and yes, a fair bit of arrogance on the part of those who feel no door in the blogosphere should ever be closed.

Unfortunately, several of those who chose to slam us didn't bother to contact anyone here to gain an understanding of our strategy--seems they'd rather shoot first, then find out the facts later. That's one reason journalists are slow to accept some bloggers into the fold. If you're going to don the mantle of journalism, you must conform to the basic tenets of the profession - accuracy, fairness, context, perspective. We have many bloggers as members of TheFirehouse, so there's certainly no discrimination between what might be called traditional and non-traditional media.

So was I surprised at the reaction or speed? Of course not. The Internet is an instantaneous form of communication. In fact, it only built the buzz for the site. Once I was contacted and permitted to explain what we're doing, assessments of TheFirehouse took a decidedly positive turn - it's amazing how facts can affect a story.  In the end, the so-called "firestorm" turned out to be pretty much a brush fire easily extinguished by the truth.

Why The Chyrsler Media Group Never Joined In The Blogosphere Conversation
We weren't proactive about promoting or explaining the blog outside the world of journalism because we already knew, through our research, that it was being embraced by our target readers. Does Ski Magazine care what non-skiers think of it?

When you break it down, we were trashed by those who had no clue about what we're doing and didn't bother to find out. All they knew is that we weren't adhering to some sort of rules that don't really exist. Think of it - the Internet was first developed by a network of university educators to share information and research. It the world stuck to those "rules" we wouldn't be having this discussion today or Amazon (wouldn't exist).

Lessons Learned
As I've said, TheFirehouse is a work in progress with no real end point. We're already beginning to reach our goal as an indispensable source of material not available anywhere else and reporters are becoming comfortable posting comments.

The biggest challenge is breaking away from the news release prose and learning to embrace the more first-person, personal approach blogging requires. We've made great progress in that regard and as executives and staffers become comfortable with the format, our postings will reflect that.

I did distribute a short "Blogging Essentials" guide with some tips for developing blog items and spend a good part of my day working with our staff in shaping blog-friendly messages.

Future Direction
As far as the future - I intend to file items on location at more media events, auto shows, breaking stories, and podcasting isn't far off.

Ed Garsten On Blogging
One thing for sure, rules, real or perceived, aren't gong to hold us back. We're involved in the most explosive form of communication to come along in at least a decade and there's no reason its growth and potential should be reined in by artificial limits. It's called progress.

Update: As of June 30,2010 the Chrysler Firehouse Media Only Blog closed its virtual doors. As Ed said in his last post, " ... the public expects to get its news right from the source, not necessarily through the filter of the press." Happy virtual travels my friend. I'm looking forward to where the social media road will take you.

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» Jalopnik Interviews Ed Garsten, Chrysler Blogger from hyku | blog - Josh Hallett
Auto blog Jalopnik has a podcast interview with Ed Garsten of Chrylser. Ed is the editorial director of TheFireHouse.biz, Chrysler's media blog. The audio is a bit rough, but it's a good listen. For some background, check out Toby's recap... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 22, 2006 9:56:59 PM

Comments

Depends on how you define "interview." I e-mailed Ed and posted his rationale on TheFirehouse.biz media-only blog on my blog back in late September:
http://www.mikespoints.com/archives/001039.html

But regardless, good piece of journalistic work!
-- Mike

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