Senior executives shouldn’t be caught dead live chatting

Well this live-chat wasn’t a major stumble, but it’s certainly a minor one.

Why? For several reasons.

The narrow questions Handley and Solis and their readers ask are not the kinds of questions that Ford’s top marketing executive ought to be answering in public: How do you overcome language barriers in marketing a car internationally? Are you embracing the most prevalent social networks country by country? What systems have you put in place to measure effectiveness of Social Media?

Ford’s top marketing man shouldn’t be caught discussing these kinds of details any more than its top engineer should be getting into the pros and cons of various polymers that might be used for seatbacks.

So the interviewee is wrong. And so are the interviewers.

Clearly flattered to be granted the access, they lob softball questions like, “Can you talk about what it has been like to work with [CEO] Alan Mulally” (what’s Farley going to say, that Mulally is a mindless monster?); and they utter inanities like, “Thank you Jim for your time today. Good luck and keep rocking!”

And the live chat medium simply isn’t a platform on which a smart conversation about big-picture subjects can take place. Here’s the best exchange that took place during the half-hour session.

Q. I think Ford’s biggest challenge for the last few years has been changing people’s perceptions of Ford. What have been the keys to changing people’s minds about what Ford is and the products Ford builds.

A. having proff about both.   hype doesnt work anymore. goodwill for ford is high but we need proof around fuel economy leadership, tech, fun to drive, great design, etc.   these proof points then demonstrate we r different and worth a look

Now I happen to know that Jim Farley is fascinating on the subject of market perceptions of Ford and how difficult it is to change them. But the shorthand style demanded by this “live chat” medium just doesn’t allow for nuanced and rich conversation—the only kinds of conversations that top leaders of major corporations ought to be engaging in.

What good does such an event do for anyone? It yields no discernible insights, it makes the interviewers look like sycophants and the interviewee look inarticulate.

Presented with this critique, Monty e-mailed me:

“In our defense, Jim was trying to juggle the live chat with being gracious to automotive and journalistic contacts from his 22-year career in the auto industry who were trying to congratulate him while he was typing away. And this entire exercise was a bit of an experiment; 12 hours of social media interaction with the C-suite. Jim was the only live chat, and it might very well have been more effective as a Twitter Q&A or a sit-down 1:1 interview with a blogger. I should also add that Jim was behind schedule, which ratcheted up the pressure of an already pretty hectic run of show outside the social media space.”

Readers, have you managed to pull off live chats or other spontaneous executive communications that came off well? Or is “stumble” less the exception than the rule? Tell me your experiences: [email protected].

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