If you remember the Michael Moore movie Roger & Me, you probably don’t remember General Motors as a company that embraces the idea of transparency. Confronted with questions about plant closures and their impact on local communities, GM resolutely refused to address the camera, acting as though any questions about the way the company conducted its business were an insufferable impertinence.

It’s not as though the Roger & Me response was totally out of character. This was the same GM that once hired a private investigator to shadow consumer activist Ralph Nader, that in the early 80s lobbied against air bags and other safety regulations, that pulled advertising out of Fortune in the late 80s after the magazine ran an interview with a disgruntled Ross Perot, and that once tried to hold two annual meetings—one for the chairman to make his remarks and another for shareholders to voice their concerns.

But General Motors has undergone a quiet but nonetheless dramatic transformation over the past decade, under the leadership first of Jack Smith and more recently of president and CEO Richard Wagoner. GM was the first Fortune 50 company to embrace the CERES (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies) principles and has a long-standing relationship with The Nature Conservancy. It has also won awards from the Sustainable Business Institute for its commitment to integrating environmental, social and financial objectives into business decisions. 

“If you look at where we’ve been, we have a long history, but we’ve been very quiet about it,” says GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss.

So quiet, in fact, that it has ceded public relations leadership in the environmental arena to rival Ford Motor Company. For the past two years, for example, Ford has published corporate citizenship reports, acclaimed for their candor, as when chairman William Clay Ford discussed the difficulties of reconciling a commitment to the environment with the production of larger, gas-guzzling SUVs, or when the company acknowledged last year that global warming was a serious issue.

But over the past couple of years, GM has also enhanced the role of public relations within its management structure, hiring automotive industry veteran Steve Harris from DaimlerChrysler early in 1999. Harris presided over a major restructuring of the PR operations—bringing greater cohesion to an organization that traditionally devolved a great deal of responsibility to division PR staffs—and is now putting a greater emphasis on corporate reputation building.

The latest manifestation of GM’s new commitment to transparency is an aggressive plan to raise the company’s visibility on a wide array of economic investments, philanthropic activities, environmental accomplishments and community partnerships. The centerpiece of that effort is a new Internet site called GMability.com. The portal will cover such topics as the environment, safety, philanthropy, sustainability, trade, diversity initiatives and public policy.

“This site should serve as an online crossroads to bring people together and provide them with meaningful, useable information about General Motors, its plants, products and people,” says Dennis Minano, the company’s chief environmental officer. “Most important, it is designed to help us, ultimately, listen to what they have to say. As a company, our goal is to be transparent to our customers and the public, to help us engage in a dialogue about our common future.

“We want to share with the public our ethics and values, our emphasis on workplace diversity, vehicle safety and environmental stewardship, and the ways in which we can make each GM community and the planet as a whole a better place to live.”

Minano explains that the name GMability is intended to reflect the site’s emphasis on the corporation’s core values of accountability, sustainability, sensibility, believability, responsibility, dependability, credibility, and capability.

“General Motors is a big company that has an impact all over the world in terms of providing jobs and doing good things in the community,” says Mark Hass, president of Ann Arber-based public relations firm Hass Associates, which assisted GM with the development of the new site. “There was no way for the company to effectively communicate all the things it was doing, because they were so dispersed. The Internet was the perfect place to pull it all together.”

Hass has worked with GM on several previous Internet initiatives, including the GMtiresafety.com site launched last year to explain the company’s tire selection and testing procedures. He believed the web provided the company with a perfect medium to bring together information from GM operations around the world—and to take its activities a step further.

“We originally saw the web as a way to bring a focus to GM’s corporate social responsibility activities,” says Hass. “But as we started to think about the interactive component of the web, we realized we could do so much more than simply publish information about the company’s good deeds. We started thinking about ways in which we could engage GM’s publics in those good deeds. We wanted to tell them what GM does, but we also wanted to show them what they could do.”

Hass says his firm conducted an extensive benchmarking study. “We found a lot of companies using the Internet to tell their corporate social responsibility stories,” he says. Indeed, companies such as Royal Dutch Shell have devoted specific sites to social responsibility issues. “But it was unusual to find companies that took a comprehensive approach, that used the Internet to engage the public.”

So the new site takes advantage of the Internet’s interactive capabilities in several ways. For example, GM worked with Enlighten, an Ann Arbor-based interactive design firm, to create a computer simulation called The Driver Distraction Demonstration (D3) that shows motorists just how much they could miss by using hand-held cell phones or tuning the radio. The D3 user chooses between one of three driving personas: a harried business executive on the way to an important meeting with his team, a mom with a van full of kids hurrying to a soccer match, or a Generation Y guy trying to get to a concert on time with his friends. 

Along the way, each character encounters incoming phone calls, annoying requests from passengers, radio tuning and other surprising distractions that detract from his or her ability to keep the vehicle on the road and maintain a safe speed. Users receive helpful feedback from Hank, a computerized driving assistant, and are then scored on a 100-point “Sense-O-Meter,” depending on the choices they make and the quality of their driving.

“We have been studying the distraction problem and trying to help people make better choices,” says William Kemp, the company’s executive director of safety communications and strategy. “We wanted a compelling way to reach out to people with the message that distracted driving is more than just using a hand-held cellular telephone. It’s also fiddling with the sound system, eating drive-through food, interacting with your passengers and a host of other non-driving tasks.”

Another section of the site features essays recorded by General Motors employees, broadcast on company wide voice mail, and published on the company’s intranet. The “Diversity Learning Moments” are a quick and easy way to gain insight into GM's increasingly diverse workforce. Visitors can also select from postcards draw by Michigan elementary school students and send them to friends. And Hass expects new features to be added over the coming weeks.

“It’s a place here people who care about issues like the environment, trade, and sustainability can learn about those issues and have an impact on decisions that affect them,” says Hass. “They can learn about what is going on in their communities, and they can learn how to donate time or money, to turn their concern into action.”

There will even be an opportunity for GM’s partners to participate.

“We wanted to develop shared content ownership,” says Hass. “We wanted to encourage NGOs like the Nature Conservancy to develop content. There’s no reason why even individuals should not own parts of the site. That way, we can create communities around issues, managed by people who really care about those issues.”

Ultimately, Hass says, the site may even contain information about the social responsibility activities of other companies.

“In the diversity section of the site, for example, it would certainly be appropriate for us to look at other examples of companies with innovative diversity programs,” he says. “Someone who is interested in diversity could come to the site and look at things that GM is doing and that other companies are doing and engage in a conversation about those programs.”

There are also plans to provide more localized information, through a section called My GMability that will allow visitors to specify their interests, and their location, allowing them to search for GM data, personalized according to their zip code and enabling them to focus on the company's impact and activities in individual communities around the world.

Hass concedes that there is some risk attached to taking such a visible stand on corporate social responsibility issues.

“One of the most difficult issues to get past was the idea that this makes a company transparent, and may therefore expose it to criticism,” says Hass. “But it seems to me that people who are online will find some place to focus their criticism, no matter what you do. The fact is that most people are sincere in their concern about the environment or auto safety, they want to do the right thing, and if you can bring those people to your corporate site and give them an environment where they can act on their concerns, you are providing them with something they will appreciate.”

But at the end of the day, “General Motors believes its commitment to corporate citizenship delivers shareholder value,” says Minano. “And real commitment requires much more than mere words, it requires action—thousands of actions taken each day from the boardroom to the plant floor. This site offers users a window into all we do.”