ANALYSIS: The Ford/Firestone breakup - No side is safe in latestFord Firestone PR war. Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have locked hornsyet again as both battle for their images. But this time it's personal,reports John Frank...

Public relations has been called the art of gentle persuasion, but

there's nothing gentle about the PR death match going on between Ford

and Bridgestone/Firestone. Both companies have put their futures on the

line trying to convince people that consumer safety is paramount and

that their products are safe.



Round-two rumblings



The latest PR war began Friday, May 18, with news that Ford was putting

pressure on Firestone to recall more of its tires. Then on Monday, Ford

announced a recall of 50,000 Explorers. Although the move stemmed from

an unrelated production problem, it brought the safety of the Explorer

back into the spotlight. Later that same day, Firestone announced it

would no longer supply tires to the automaker, and even more dramatic,

called the vehicle's safety into question.



There was no rest for the PR teams at the two companies. On Tuesday,

Ford CEO Jac Nasser went into proactive mode, saying, "We lack

confidence in the performance of Firestone tires." He went on to

announce a program to replace 13 million tires at a cost of between

dollars 2 billion and dollars 3 billion.



Those steps are the latest volleys in the debate over why Ford Explorers

fitted with Firestone tires are involved in many fatal accidents. The

federal government has attributed 174 deaths and more than 700 injuries

to the product, and 6.5 million of these tires were recalled last

year.



The survival of the Firestone brand hinges on the outcome of the latest

struggle. And while Ford's longevity may not be at stake, many see the

company as worried about how the crisis will impact its sales. The

Explorer SUV is a mainstay of Ford's product lineup, and damage to its

reputation could produce major financial consequences for the

automaker.



All of which explains why the kid gloves are off when it comes to public

relations. "This is hardball at its ultimate," says one veteran Detroit

PR executive. "I'm afraid this thing's going to get a lot uglier."



A veteran crisis communications expert says he can't recall seeing two

major companies arguing this vehemently in public. "This is a no-win for

both sides," he says. The more they fight, the more uncertain the public

becomes, he contends. Oliver Schmidt, a senior partner with C4CS in

Charlotte, NC, agrees : "The longer the accusations go on, the more

damage both companies' images are going to suffer."



To the public's eye it looks like an unwelcome rerun of last fall's

spat. But the two have subtly changed strategies.



Big guns



Unlike last year when Firestone came off as a largely faceless corporate

behemoth, this time CEO John Lampe was all over the media making his

case.



And Ford rolled out heavy guns of its own on Tuesday. Not only was

Nasser at the press conference to announce the tire-replacement program,

but chairman William Clay Ford Jr. weighed in as well.



PR experts had criticized Ford last year for using Nasser as the

company's main spokesperson rather than Ford. Now the time has

apparently come for the scion of the Ford family to take a very public

stand on the tire issue.



Ford's public involvement in the controversy "adds a whole new dimension

to this," says Schmidt. "It brings added credibility."



However, Firestone didn't let the Ford press conference go

unchallenged.



It responded by giving reporters copies of reports written in Venezuela

about troubles there with Explorers using Goodyear tires.



Firestone is determined to paint Ford and the Explorer as villains in

this drama. It's unclear whether the get-tough PR approach is coming at

the advice of its agency Ketchum, or from company headquarters in

Japan.



"The pre-emptive strike is a key weapon in crisis management," notes

Bill Patterson, president of Reputation Management Associates in

Columbus, OH. "I don't think they had much choice."



Freeing itself from Ford allows Firestone to go on the PR offensive

against the Explorer. But doing so is risky. "It's going to take a

miracle for Bridgestone/Firestone to win the PR war," says

Patterson.



Firestone may be hoping a federal report due out this summer will paint

the vehicle as the culprit in accidents involving Firestone tires on

Explorers.



If the report is ambiguous about causes, Firestone will end up looking

like the villain, especially given the financial commitment Ford has

made to replace what it calls troubled Firestone tires.



Schmidt believes Firestone, rather than attack Ford, should play up the

performance of its tire on other vehicles, trying to rebuild a

reputation for quality. "If I were Firestone, I would certainly point

out that General Motors and Nissan are continuing to trust Firestone

tires," Schmidt says.



Ford has its own PR challenges to face. It has a new Explorer on the

market, one that already has had two recalls in three months even though

Ford delayed its introduction to try and catch any production problems

early.



The new Explorer is wider than the old, a change that should make it

safer to drive. "But Ford has got to walk a very fine line on safety,"

says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management. Too

much talk about how safe the new Explorers are could lead people to

worry about the safety of older Explorers," he adds.



It's all in the details



Ford communications efforts will need to address details of its

tire-replacement program and the inevitable stories that will emerge

about consumers who can't get tires changed quickly enough for their

liking.



It also will need to be prepared for stories about accidents or deaths

involving Explorers with tires that haven't yet been replaced.



Meanwhile, Ford and Firestone will need to look to Washington, where

Congressional hearings may again address the safety issue. Ford has

already taken steps in this area. Nasser went to Washington the day

before the tire-replacement press conference to meet with three

different congressional groups.



Ford should keep William Clay Ford Jr. in the forefront, says

Patterson.



A descendent of the intermarriage of the Ford and Firestone families,

Ford carries credibility when he says the decision to replace Firestone

tires was not made lightly. His name is on the company, so his words

carry weight with an American public increasingly fed up with faceless

corporations, PR experts agree.



The end of this struggle likely won't see one company emerge as hero and

one as villain. Rather, one company will come out with its reputation

intact and the other will need to spend years rebuilding a shattered

image.



Says David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann

Arbor, MI: "I'm not sure if there are any winners in this thing at all."



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