Although it's not obvious at a first glance at its Facebook page, General Motors has been using social media to communicate with customers as it copes with the recall of 1.6 million cars it has linked to 12 deaths, a US media report said.

According to the New York Times (NYT), comments on mundane posts have come from customers like Donna Genader, who raged that her daughter "used every penny she had to purchase her dream car and instead she is stuck with a death trap on wheels".

Dozens of messages have come back from GM customer service representatives directed at the commenters, trying to answer their questions about the recall and engage them in private messages to iron out individual problems, like getting a loaner car to Genader’s daughter who owns a recalled 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt.

The paper said GM’s dual approach — going about its normal business while trying to help specific customers — reflects the tightrope the company must walk on social media like Facebook and Twitter, where a customer’s perceptions of a brand are shaped by both what the company does and what other people say about it.

"This issue cannot define GM going forward,” Dave Evans, vice president for social strategy at Lithium Technologies, a San Francisco firm that helps companies manage customer service on social networks, told the New York Times.

"They really have the opportunity to fundamentally redefine themselves as an open, transparent, listening organisation."

The report said Lauren Munhoven turned to Twitter after wasting an hour on the phone with GM trying to get help with her 2006 Saturn Ion. Those Ions, and five other models, were recalled in February because of a defective ignition switch that, if bumped or weighed down by a heavy key ring, could turn off, shutting down the engine and disabling the air bags.

"@GM your agents keep telling me to take my car to a GM dealer for the recall, after I’ve explained I live on an island in Alaska! Help!!!!", she wrote in a public tweet.

After a series of private messages with a member of GM’s Twitter team, the company agreed to pay the US$600 cost of a round-trip ferry to ship Munhoven’s car to the nearest dealer, about 300 miles away in Juneau, and pay for a rental car for the time she is without the Saturn," the paper reported.

Munhoven reportedly credited the public nature of Twitter complaints for getting GM’s attention.

"Over Twitter, the service was a lot better," she told the Times. She was so pleased that she posted a public thank-you on Twitter.

The report said the automaker primarily is using conventional methods, like letters to customers, blogs, a call centre and the news media to get its recall message out. A video message to employees from chief executive, Mary Barra, for example, has received wide play on GM sites and elsewhere.

But social networks have also become an important tool for the company to show its commitment to making things right, even as it tries to show off its newest models and build enthusiasm among customers unaffected by the recall.

"We’re trying to help customers out, but we are also trying to stay true to what the majority of customers are looking for," Phil Colley, a social media strategist at the company, told the New York Times.

GM has a team of about 20 people based in Detroit that manages its social media presence — including monitoring about 100 independent auto forums — and responds to inquiries and complaints seven days a week. Another 50 people staff a call centre with as many as 50 more people helping out when call volume is high, as it has been since the recall began, the report said.

Amrit Mehta, GM’s director of customer and relationship services, told the NYT the company’s social media team tried to reach out to people like Munhoven to understand and resolve their specific concerns.

One challenge has been to tell customers that the cars are safe to drive while they wait for repairs, which will begin in April, as long as any extra items are removed from the key ring. Despite those assurances, many customers have requested loaner cars or free rentals. So far, GM has provided more than 6,000 loaners, the company said, including, in some cases, non-GM vehicles provided by rental car companies.

Roland Rust, a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland who studies how companies manage brand crises, told the Times that GM’s responsiveness online was "absolutely the right thing to do".

"If they don’t respond to the customers, then those customers are going to continue to flame them," said Rust, who is also an international research fellow at the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation.

A robust public response is particularly important in wooing first-time customers, who are critical to the company’s future profits.

"They are thinking, I can either buy this GM car that I know kills people or I can buy something else," he said.

So far, the damage to the company’s brand appears to have been minimal online, the New York Times said.

Despite the barrage of headlines about federal investigations into GM's decade-long failure to issue the recall, overall sentiment about GM and its brands on Twitter has remained the same since the crisis began. According to an analysis by Crimson Hexagon, a social media analytics firm in Boston, about 26% of Twitter messages mentioning the company were positive, 71% were neutral and 3% were negative.

Consumers are not tweeting much about the recalls, Elizabeth Breese, senior content and digital marketing strategist at Crimson Hexagon, told the paper.

"It looks like the conversation is generally being driven by auto, business and media authors."