One day last month, Volkswagen of America boss Len Hunt was monitoring a highly charged Internet discussion about why some VW owners in the US are leaving the brand.
As he read the opinions on VWvortex.com, an independent website for VW owners and enthusiasts, Hunt was goaded into action.
It's standard procedure to let such things pass if you are a senior executive. But Hunt couldn't help himself.
In a rare move for a high-ranking auto executive, Hunt went public: He posted a comment along with his name and title: "Len Hunt, executive vice president, Volkswagen of America Inc."
Sometimes people who post messages on the site pass themselves off as "Bernd Pischetsrieder" or "Ferdinand Piëch," the names of VW Group's current and former chairmen. But Hunt's posting was the real deal.
"I just did it. It was totally spontaneous," says the VW brand's top US executive. "I don't want people thinking I'm this faceless corporate suit somewhere."
Now Hunt is regularly posting comments on VWvortex.
Most of what he has to say is innocuous. For example, here he is what he said about the leaving-the-brand question:
"Thanks, Vortexers, for this subject which I obviously find very important. Our challenge seems to be a combination of quality and exciting vehicles. I can tell you all that we are listening to your views, and I personally take them with me on my many trips to the factory in Wolfsburg. Keep sending the comments; I'm listening."
That's what he might say in a press release. But Hunt says he also sends e-mails to some online posters.
General Motors Vice Chairman Robert Lutz writes a Web log on GM's corporate Web site, but Hunt is the first senior auto executive to be spotted in an independent forum.
Among the topics Hunt has addressed online are prospects for more diesel offerings; the possibility of bringing a small car to the US; and VW's controversial decision not to introduce the Microbus minivan there.
It is no surprise that Hunt and other executives at VWoA's Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters regularly follow threads in the VWvortex forums. The website has more than 200,000 registered users, and more than 500,000 visitors each month.
That's a massive audience that Hunt wants to address personally.
'It's just me'
"I'm not doing this as a strategy or as a way of getting a formal channel of news or information," Hunt says. "It's not that at all. It's just me, Len Hunt, going on there because I'm interested in this."
And he has used the forum to make news.
Hunt, a native of England, recalls the Golf GTI cars he has owned in his homeland. So he quickly joined a VWvortex discussion about whether VW ought to bring a five-door GTI to the US, in addition to the three-door model.
He broke the news that VW will bring a five-door model to the US, about a year after the three-door model debuts in February.