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Post 9/11 e-mail continues to haunt international automakers

November 24, 2010
By Susan Stellin, New York Times

Messages spread quickly in cyberspace, too quickly sometimes for the truth to catch up. Shortly after Sept. 11, an unknown individual composed an e-mail that purported to list the donations that various automobile companies had made to relief efforts.

The message cited CNN Headline News as the source of the information, and contrasted large gifts said to have come from Detroit-based companies with negligable, or nonexistent, contributions from foreign automakers. That e-mail gathered momentum as recipients forwarded it to friends. At some point, the message made the jump from electronic media and was cited in opinion pieces in local newspapers. It was cited in at least one radio advertisement as a reason to buy American cars.

The message that has been more difficult to spread is that the e-mail is riddled with errors. CNN says it never did a segment on gifts from the auto industry to 9/11 charities, and many of the companies the e-mail cited as giving nothing have, in fact, made sizable contributions, both from their own coffers and through contributions from employees. Several of the foreign automakers portrayed as deadbeats have issued press releases detailing their charitable contributions, updating their Web sites to feature prominent links to pages describing their 9/11 philanthropy and responding to each individual who inquires about the erroneous e-mail.

Despite these efforts, the message continues to circulate. "It has been plaguing our industry for months," said Lori Barnes, vice president for public affairs at the American International Automobile Dealers Association in Alexandria, Va. "It's a classic case of an Internet rumor gone amok. We were thinking it would go away, and it didn't; it just grew and grew and grew."

Although no one can say for sure whether the message was composed out of malice or misinformation, it concludes by encouraging recipients to consider the companies' charitable records when buying or leasing a new vehicle, and to "give more consideration to a car manufactured by an American- owned and/or American based company." Jeffrey Smith, senior manager for corporate communications at the American Honda Motor Company, one automaker singled out in the e-mail as giving nothing, suggested that pro-American sentiment might have helped propel the message.

"It would take someone to be proactively behind it for it to spread that wide," he said. "But that's just my speculation." Honda issued a press release on Feb. 1 outlining more than $1.5 million the company and its employees had given to relief organizations, in addition to donations of vehicles and equipment. As for the e-mail's reference to CNN, Megan Mahoney, a network spokeswoman, said the only material she was able to find even remotely related to the topic was text that scrolled across the television screen on Sept. 14 listing donations from various companies and individuals.

"It was a random sampling of contributions and pledges to relief funds based on information available at the time," she said, adding, "This was just an item on the ticker." Representatives of Honda and Toyota, another company that the e-mail erroneously said had given nothing, said the incident might change how they communicate about philanthropy. "We'd given without much fanfare out of respect for the lives of those affected," said Xavier Dominicis, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. "Since we hadn't made much fuss, we might have fallen victim to our own discretion." In mid-November, Toyota issued a news release that said the company, employees and dealers had donated more than $1.9 million to relief funds.

The e-mail message divided automakers into two camps- foreign and domestic-although such distinctions are no longer easy to make. "The lines between foreign and domestic just don't exist anymore," said Eron Shosteck of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington. "You've got foreign automakers that have plants in the United States and American- based automakers that have plants in other countries." "That e-mail is pure and simple disinformation," Shosteck said, another reason "for people to be very wary of the emails they get."