Commentary: Tweet and Ye Shall Respond

Ford CEO Mark Fields and UAW vice president Jimmy Settles ready to make an announcement at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant on January 3, 2017 – Photo courtesy of the Ford Motor Company

The first few business days of the year has already yielded some weighty headlines.

For one, I was greeted by an e-mail from General Motors reiterating something that those of us who cover industry already know. GM clarified that the popular Chevrolet Cruze sedan is produced is Lordstown, Ohio with their newly hot hatchback models built at a plant in Ramos Arizpe, Coahuila in Mexico. The latter was designed for consumption throughout the Western Hemisphere, with a small number of units designed for USA sale.

The other was a continuation of a story that broke out during the Presidential campaign. Ford made an announcement that it would move production of the compact Focus and C-Max MPV from the Michigan Assembly facility to a new facility under construction in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. The plan was to transfer production of these two vehicles for a wider export market beyond North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) zone to other countries within the Western Hemisphere.

However, Ford did a turn on production plans by cancelling the $1.6 billion facility in North Central Mexico to invest $700 million in expanding the Flat Rock plant outside of Detroit for electrification of several popular Ford vehicles. In addition, Ford CEO Mark Fields announced that the next generation Focus will be built at an existing plant Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. The move is similar to GM's strategy, as the next Focus is being considered for export into NAFTA and other countries within the Western Hemisphere.

If we look as to why these announcements were made, one clue have already been stated in one of these previous paragraphs.

American citizens who participated in last year's Presidential Election enabled the Electoral College to select Donald J. Trump (R-New York) as the 45th person to hold the nation's highest office. It has not been a warm reception for President-elect Trump.

President-elect Trump has been quite active on social media, in particular Twitter. The actions and statements made by both GM and Ford had their roots in specific tweets made by the Presidential candidate, and, now, President-elect regarding these two domestic automakers' activities in Mexico towards a renegotiation and possible revocation of the NAFTA agreement.

Ironically, Trump's election had its roots in the automotive industry. His words touched a nerve that helped the real estate mogul to win key states where jobs were lost in the automotive sector among manufacturing rank-and-file. Former assembly line employees had a long-held anger towards the closure of the plants they worked at and the conversion of assembly line jobs towards new plants in Mexico and elsewhere to be outsourced for lower cost labor.

The tweets that Trump made that provoked these statements and actions by Ford and GM created a deeper chasm between the President-elect and the industry. How does a company respond when new taxes were threatened for millions of people worldwide to read? Furthermore, how did social media become a weapon of words to provoke reactions and response in affecting business decisions and strategies for political purposes?

This is the editorial quandary I face today. How do I navigate in this new twist of media coverage?

If I look at the stories themselves, then I see some positive points from them. For GM, they are given the chance to reiterate their production strategies involving a popular product. There is a truth in advertising that is reiterated. However, it is not necessarily news as to a company’s production strategy, when it is publicly stated elsewhere. It becomes news when someone of the influence, such as the President-elect, makes a public statement in criticism of said business activities of a major corporation in the country he will soon govern.

As for Ford’s press conference at Flat Rock, this needs to be broken down. The announcement of further electrification efforts by the company is a positive sign that Ford is looking towards the future. It wants to be a company that fosters mobility through harnessing the latest technology it develops at Dearborn and elsewhere. Electrification that will be a positive force in vehicle sales and to meet upcoming new standards for automobile efficiency and emissions is considered good news indeed.

So, why not a Mustang Hybrid? Or, an F-150 Hybrid? Why not, indeed!

As for the production announcement, many pundits have already mentioned the President-elect's name as a reason for the cancellation of the new plant in San Luis Potosi. There has been no such mention of the President-elect in Ford’s official statement. When we start reading between the lines, one could see two different motivations for this move. It could be that Ford studied the proposed plant and found it to not serve the company well. On the other hand, one could look down the path back to Washington and New York for some influence on this production announcement. Which motivational string is true would be up for debate.

Again, it presents a challenge when covering this industry for the first term of the incoming administration. How does one see the value in a production statement or decision that affects employees in this country? How does one try to decipher the impacts on changes in trade agreements that could happen within this administration's watch? How will it ultimately affect consumers? These are valid questions that should be devoid of bias and personal opinion. Or, am I going to be prone to being effective as a member of the media when covering subject matter, such as this?

I, for one, do not wish to jump into the argument for or against the President-elect. This was a lesson I learned when I was a contractor doing IT procurement at DARPA. I knew who my ultimate boss was – the Commander-in-Chief. To defy the ultimate officer in the Department of Defense and the Armed Forces was an absolute no-no.

But, what if I said something that would be interpreted as being pro- or anti-government? All of the sudden my commitment to being ethical and maintaining my neutrality as a media person will come into repute either way.

The long reach of social media evoked many opinions, feelings and behaviors stoked by this past election. I cited the rise in acrimony as a result of this increased pall of social media. One such result was the increase in individual and societal hatred of the "other." These episodes of acrimony that affected my own work was indeed responsible for the extreme rise in my own psyche and stress. It was responsible for affecting my work in this business towards putting me in the hospital twice.

I am unsure what to do when something had to be put into a press release by an entity that I cover in this work because of a Twitter user. Let alone, that Twitter user just happens to be the President-elect of the United States of America.

What am I going to do? If these two corporate media episodes are a preview of what is to come in the coverage of the automotive industry; this is going to be a stressful four years in the USA.

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