EDITORIAL: Ford faces up as Firestone faces off

The technical glitch that led to the recall of 50,000 Explorers

last week almost had you feeling sorry for Ford. After a ham-fisted

start, the beleaguered automaker has done so much PR-wise to bring some

closure to last year's crisis - shutting down production to free up

tires, settling lawsuits quickly and without quibble, and further

delaying the introduction of the new Explorer to ensure that they got it

right. Even if you don't believe that it's done a great job, it's

certainly done better than Bridgestone/Firestone.



Now, with two recalls in less than a month (the first one caused by a

tendency for the door windows to shatter when the doors closed), CEO

Jacques Nasser must be feeling like Homer Simpson. His one consolation

must be that, this time, Ford has done the smartest thing possible, from

a PR standpoint, to get itself out of this. First, it has issued a

speedy recall for the 50,000 new Explorers, before the problem had led

to any loss of life or any accusations of a coverup. Second, after

issuing a report last Tuesday on its investigation into last year's

crisis, Ford's recall of a further 13 million Firestone tires, at

enormous cost to the auto-maker, gives it the moral high ground over

Bridgestone/Firestone, suggesting that Nasser's commitment to "the

safety of our customers" really is paramount. It has won a PR Play of

the Week for its efforts (see p. 2).



By contrast, Bridgestone/Firestone's pre-emptive strike on Monday,

severing all ties with Ford, comes across as a childish abrogation of

responsibility.



There is an obvious question mark over the stability of the old

Explorer, but Bridgestone/Firestone won't win any friends by entering

into a very public shouting match with Ford. Appearing to ignore the

equally obvious fact that its tires should not have separated in the

first place, its "refusal to work together for the safety of our shared

customers," (in Nasser's words) plays into Ford's hands. Instead of

stamping its feet and shouting, "It's not fair, it's not fair," where is

the new super-adhesive glue on which Firestone's reputation can be

pieced together? Whatever happened to pro-activity and selfless sweeping

gestures?



All that said, however, Ford is not out of the soup by a long way. The

next hurdle will likely be the Congress report (yet to be released). If

it sides with Bridgestone/Firestone, it would seriously damage Ford's

credibility. Second, Ford has got a marketing tongue twister on its

hands if it hopes to promote the safety of the new Explorer (with its

bigger tires, lower profile, and wider axle) without suggesting that the

old one was in any way unsafe. The safety of the old Explorer is

implicitly undermined, and a new set of tires may be no more effective

than a lick of paint at allaying fears of its instability in the

long-term. Ford must worry that it's got another Pinto on its hands.



And finally, with the recall of the new Explorers, Ford must address the

doubts about the build quality of its vehicles, doubts that GM, Daimler

Chrysler, but also Japanese and European dealers are bound to

exploit.



And as if that wasn't enough, gas prices keep going up.



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