July 17, 2015
Advotocracy: The Subtle Art of Turning Detractors Into Advocates

We often think of leadership as the act of leading our own teams to victory and success. But what about those who lie outside of our chain of command? How do we convince people to think as we do?

In a word? Advocates.

Let me give you an example.

What would you think if you read this on the cover of the latest Wiz Khalifa album?

“This is the best damn album I’ve heard in a decade.”

— Wiz Khalifa

It’s ridiculous, right? (I mean, what else would Wiz think of his own work?)

And yet that’s the kind of thing we – as marketers, advertisers and PR practitioners – are often called on to do for our companies. We tout the merits of our products and policies, but is anybody listening? More importantly, does anybody believe us? After all, we’re being paid by the companies we promote.

Now imagine that you saw this quote on the cover of Wiz Khalifa’s latest:

“This is the best damn album I’ve heard in a decade.”

— Drake

You probably don’t have a problem with that quote, do you? For some reason, praise like that is a little more palatable coming from someone you trust who really doesn’t have any skin in the game.

This gets to the heart of a concept I call advotocracy, the act of leading through advocacy.

In my 20-plus years in PR, I’ve learned that most difficult situations involving outside detractors are best solved by being transparent and trying to understand your critic’s point of view. By finding common ground with your detractors, even the most determined ones, you can actually turn them into your partners and, eventually, your most vocal advocates. That’s what advotocracy is all about.

Here’s a bit of real-life context.

The EV1

The EV1 was General Motors’ first mass-produced electric car.

Its launch met with great fanfare and an almost cult-like following ensued. EV1 drivers loved their car and the environmentally sustainable future it represented. And why wouldn’t they? It was a blast to drive, looked pretty cool, and didn’t use a drop of gasoline (which, by the way, was hovering anywhere from about 95-cents/gallon to about $1.50/gallon – remember those days?)

Unfortunately, at that time in our nation’s history, overall demand for that kind of forward-looking technology was very low and the EV1 program was discontinued in 2002.

It seemed logical enough. This sort of thing happens all the time in business. When products don’t sell, you eventually have to stop making them. However, the reaction from very passionate customers and environmentalists to what we saw as a pretty basic supply and demand issue was severe. Some went so far as to accuse GM of sabotaging its own electric car program.

The negative coverage and consumer outcry were bad enough … and then came the movie.

I killed the electric car

Who Killed the Electric Car? was produced by EV1 driver and filmmaker Chris Paine. The premise was that a GM-conspiracy existed to prove the electric car wouldn’t work as a consumer product and that, among other things, big oil and gasoline helped to stop production.

The documentary made GM look very bad and personally painted me out as the new Ron Ziegler (Richard Nixon’s press secretary) or some evil Darth Vader – or Barth Vader as I was called – responsible for taking the car off the road.

Despite claims to the contrary in Who Killed the Electric Car?, only about 800 people in four years signed an EV1 lease agreement. And that was after GM spent well over $1 billion to create a mass market for this unique car.


It was a tough time for the company. Being in California, I was on the front lines with some of our most outspoken critics.

But as one tends to do in situations like these, we learned a lot, including how to turn even the most determined detractors into t enthusiastic advocates. This is a process I’ve encapsulated into three easy – well, truth be told, not so easy – steps, along with the leadership traits necessary to achieve them.

Step 1: Identify the (real) issue

The first step when dealing with determined detractors is to make sure you fully understand the problem.

The issue wasn’t really that there was a GM-led conspiracy to eliminate electric vehicles from the mainstream market. What people were really upset about was the fact that there was a viable alternative fuel technology out there, and yet it appeared there were no automakers pursuing it.

The main issue here was a lack of understanding. We were trying to answer a very emotional argument with straightforward, logical thinking. And as you might guess, that’s a tactic doomed to fail.

It was clear that we weren’t doing a very good job communicating our commitment to EV technology. As a leader, you need to be humble in situations like these. Remember, you have the power to change your circumstances, but humility and understanding are how you’re going to get there.

We didn’t put ourselves in our consumers’ shoes and so we failed to understand why people weren’t responding to our business rationale. We looked out of touch, and in some respects, I think we probably were.

Step 2:  Open up and be transparent

Those of us inside GM knew about the amazing work the company was doing in the pursuit of alternative fuel vehicles and EV technology.

The problem was that nobody outside the company knew what we were doing. We needed to correct the things being said about us, but to do so meant breaking down more than a few solid, longstanding walls.

Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but after the first movie, we embraced our critics.

We asked Chris Paine to come to Detroit to see all that GM was researching, designing and building. We offered him an unhindered look at our Chevy Volt plug-in program. We showed him everything and asked for input. Our efforts, which were certainly uncomfortable for some, maybe even Chris, eventually helped paint us in a better light, and really drove home both our commitment and enthusiasm for the future of electrification.

Instead of continuing to take the backseat, we got behind the wheel of our own story. As a leader, you can’t sit back and wait to see how things play out, especially when dealing with vocal detractors. You have to be proactive, creative and willing to put yourself out there. If you don’t have confidence in your brand or product, then you have nothing.

Step 3: Keep your foot on the gas

It would have been easy to shake a few hands and make a few promises, paying lip service to this whole notion of sustainable motoring.

Fortunately for us, GM didn’t have that luxury.

As you may recall, the company was going through a very public financial crisis that ended in bankruptcy. We needed to become a better company and we needed to do it fast.

Initiating a few key events wasn’t going to be enough. We needed to go all in. For my part, I needed to find the opportunities that would help reshape our public perception. Persistence, perseverance and determination were key in this situation. They are tools that can be found in every effective leader’s toolbox – and are among the key building blocks of any successful advotocracy.

The next-gen Volt, which was unveiled earlier this year, is a perfect example of listening to our consumers. The designers and engineers who worked on that car listened to feedback from the community and actually incorporated that feedback into their designs. At a company like GM, that’s not just a new way of thinking – it’s revolutionary.

Unleashing your army of advocates

So what were the results of this EV adventure of ours?

Well, to give you an idea, here’s me — Barth Vader — on the red carpet of Chris Paine’s second movie: Revenge of the Electric Car.

Engaging Chris, making him part of the family, and giving him total access helped changed his mind about where we were heading. I believe that Revenge of the Electric Car — and the positive light in which it paints our efforts — is the direct result of Chris seeing things as an insider and witnessing our real commitment to these kinds of advanced technologies.

Now we have an army of advocates who support what we do at GM (well, most of what we do). Better yet, they go out and spread the good word about our cars with a plug without us even asking them to.

By learning to be humble, understanding our adversaries, embracing transparency and being persistent, we learned that our most vocal detractors weren’t all that dissimilar from us. In fact, we all wanted the same thing. Once we found that common ground, we were able to build something great.

This electric advotocracy of ours has helped put thousands of Chevy Volts on the road (many driven by former EV1 drivers from back in the day), and has helped create the same kind of enthusiasm for our others cars that come with a plug – the Chevy Spark EV, Cadillac ELR, and the upcoming Chevy Bolt EV.

All in all, not a bad turnaround for GM or the electric car.