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BMW and social media: who controls the message?


Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, or the Baravian Motor Works (BMW), was founded by Franz Josef Popp in 1917. The company has evolved from aircraft engine production to motorcycle and automobile innovations in design, engineering, technology, and production (Kiley, 2004). The nearly 1.5 million units sold in 2011 are associated with BMW and produced under the brand names of Rolls Royce, Husqvarna, Mini, and BMW. Production sites include Germany, Mexico, China, Russia, United Kingdom, Austria, South Africa, and the United States with assembly operations located in Thailand, Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India for the BMW 3, 5, 7 series and X3 (BMW, 2004). The company has strategically positioned its brand through sponsorships of international events, such as the 2012 Olympics in London, the BMW Open in Germany, Italy, and Wentworth and the Auto Werke Art Project. BMW products have taken top honors in car racing events such as the Japanese Touring Car Championship, SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge Touring Car Series, and the Tour de Corse (Rothacher, 2004) which enhanced brand value. The product development and sales strategy incorporates customer diversity as products are positioned to appeal to various economically situated groups through traditional and social media advertising. The globalization of a German-based company brings unique challenges and opportunities. This paper focuses on how new media has altered traditional marketing, sales, and corporate communication strategies. Specifically, the paper will establish how the corporate communications department operates from a systems perspective. The influx of social media usage and practices will be described, and findings from in-depth interviews with 18 members of the corporate communications department will explore how the organization has managed social media messaging.

Systems Theory

A corporate communications department operates from a systems perspective. The term links to Von Bertalanffy's book titled, General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, from 1968 in which he defined a system as "elements in a standing relationship." Other researchers have evolved the system's concepts to define system characteristics as having interrelated parts, hierarchical ordering, and interdependence. Open systems respond to feedback while closed systems, or those operating but not attending to feedback and choosing to act in isolation overtime, cease to exist. As such, systems that display complexity empower units within the system to operate using different management structures, cultural rites and rituals, and personnel. Research also supports that systems that adapt to internal and external feedback survive over time. Figure 1 represents one system at BMW that shares a communications tool that serves as the systems hub: social media. The marketing department conducts numerous research efforts to understand potential customers' needs and wants and is charged with positioning the brand, while the sales department interfaces with dealerships and customers to move the brand. The engineering department designs and develops technologies that promote brand uniqueness and prepares mechanics to maintain high-end BMW technologies; thus, increase customer demand. The corporate communications department is a system within this system that originates and/or supports all internal and external communication efforts. While each unit has a social media presence that is managed by unit members, the determination as to who owns the strategy and messaging function is under discussion at many organizations. The lines are blurred because social media is utilized by sales, marketing, public relations, advertising, and other units within an organization. BMW was in the process of discussing this phenomenon with the diverse units when I served as an intern. The conversation was being led by the corporate communications unit which was interested in developing a specific protocol to guide units' practices. What follows is the methodology utilized to understand what unit controls social media messaging and use.

Case Study Methodology

Not all methodologists agree that case study is a methodology. Stake (2005) suggests case study research is a choice of what is to be studied. Creswell (2013) views the case study as "a type of design in qualitative research that may be an object of study, as well as a product of the inquiry" (Creswell, 2013, p. 97). This with-in site instrumental case study was bounded by the time frame in which I served as an intern and, thus, I was able to observe members of the department and conduct in-depth interviews. Additional data collection involved a qualitative content analysis review of the BMW websites, Facebook and Twitter posts, print sales publications, print internal communications, newspaper coverage, media events, and diverse reports on-site. The Plank Center for Leadership urges interns to establish a research agenda to be conducted during the internship. The research project is discussed with the intern's supervisor prior to arriving at the internship site. My research agenda entailed three areas: practitioners' desired skills for new hires; interfacing with other units in a global organization; and diffusion of social media within the organization. This paper focused on one component of the social media research effort. One research question guiding this component of the study was, "Who controls message strategy and placement in social media?"

A structured, in-depth interview protocol was devised based on review of diverse content areas of the literature. Eighteen questions, covering three major areas of content, were asked of 14 participants. There were numerous probe questions to empower the participants' complete exploration of the topics. The Vice-President of Corporate Communications supported the research effort and suggested his team find time to meet with me while I was at the site. An electronic invitation was sent to the 20 team members. In-person invitations were also extended.


The average length of the 18 in-depth interviews was 78 minutes. Some of the interviews were conducted in a conference room, others were conducted over a meal, and some were conducted at the participant's desk followed by an illustration of key aspects of their position. One interview was conducted via telephone due to the participant's travel schedule. After the in-depth interviews were completed, the notes were transcribed and the first level of analysis, which is reported here, focused on the identification of recurring themes. The themes that were identified regarding who controls message placement and strategy in social media were divided according to message type. It appeared that BMW North America units request assistance from corporate communication, as needed, and manage their on-line presence using appropriate relationship strategies.

We usually don't hear anything from anyone unless there is a potential problem. You know, customer service manages electronic communication without a lot of intervention from us. People reach out to ask for help when they believe they need it. (Personal Communication, A12-4-15.)

The North America Corporate Communications unit has contracts with two services for monitoring traditional and social media: Evolve24 and Vocus. The reports are shared with the different units, and there is some debriefing by the corporate communications management team. Each unit also uses independent research firms to address specific information needed for strategy development, execution, and evaluation within units. There is no central research clearing house for all units to explore the commissioned work. More recently, conversations regarding when to participate in blog or Facebook discussions surrounding BMW and/or BMW products surfaced. Employees were striving to reach consensus regarding when, or how much, conversation warrants intervention. There was agreement that comments posted on social media have the potential to alter an audiences' perception of the brand in a positive or negative direction. Likewise, discussion surrounding when to inject company/brand information, and what process to do so, would be appropriate. Identification of the stage where feedback has the potential to push the company from a proactive stance to a reactive stance can be critical in warding off crisis. The in-depth interviews revealed that the units tend to solicit aid from corporate communications when social media posts are trending in the negative direction. While it is important to note that assistance is being requested, the management of a crisis that is already in progress is more difficult than managing a situation that is in the pre-crisis stage. While no agreement was reached regarding the establishment of a protocol, it was obvious that the corporate communications department was proactive in attempting to get all unit leaders to the table and engage in the discussion. "Our business is successful because our employees are innovative and strategic. I believe who controls the messaging and positioning of social media will be resolved after we have several cases under our belt. People learn by doing." (Personal Communication, G-3-5-22.)


The 18 corporate communications employees interviewed for this study all shared a passion for automobiles or motorcycles, and all but one had a degree in communications (public relations). Management had a critical decision to cross-train employees so that there was an understanding of what the position entails and what specific skills were needed to be successful. Employees discussed how the cross-training experience aided their understanding of the organization, department, and identification of personal areas of expertise. The results support that employees were not interested in a turf battle over the social media messaging function. Corporate communications employees expressed the desire to manage potential crisis situations proactively, as well as to ensure the appropriate presentation and positioning of BMW brands.

Dr. Ann D. Jabro

Robert Morris University


Bayerische Motoren Werke. AG Annual Report. (2010). (PDF). BMW Group.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Female participant, #3 (2013). Plank Internship at BMW North America Research Project/Interviewere: Ann D. Jabro, Robert Morris University, Pittsburgh, PA.

Kiley, D. (2004). Driven: Inside BMW, the most admired car company in the world. San Francisco, CA: Wiley and Sons

Rothacher, A. (2004). Corporate cultures and global brands. Takoma Park, MD: World Scientific Publishing Company.

Stake, R. (2005). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York, NY: George Braziller.
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Author:Jabro, Ann D.
Publication:The Proceedings of the Laurel Highlands Communications Conference
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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