Renewed hostilities between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have
garnered widespread media coverage - but what hasn't been talked about
is the tire supplier's newly proactive PR approach in this public
When the controversy over Ford Explorer roll-overs flared last year, and
after an initial PR lag on both sides, it was Ford that really set the
PR agenda - apologizing, initiating a massive recall and speedily
resolving legal cases - all the while casting doubt on Firestone
The tiremaker was slow to react, appearing timid and constantly on the
Stealing Ford's thunder
That's changed. Rather than wait for Ford to announce its 13 million
tire recall, Firestone - in conjunction with its PR agencies, Ketchum
and PSI - decided on a preemptive strike, with CEO John Lampe declaring
on May 21 that the company would no longer supply Ford in the US. Lampe
appeared on CNN, CNBC and Good Morning America to turn the spotlight
back on Ford Explorers. The move stole thunder from Ford, which
announced its recall the next day.
"We got almost nothing from (Firestone) last year," says Kim Norris,
assistant business editor for auto coverage at the Detroit Free Press,
"but now they're fighting fire with fire." The paper's proposal to
interview Lampe has been well received.
Paul Eisenstein, a long-time Detroit auto writer who runs
TheCarConnection.com, agrees. "I think Firestone has become a little
more available and has been much more aggressive in recent weeks."
Jill Bratina, Firestone director of PR, says the company is "looking to
get information to as many media as possible," issuing written
statements in response to anything Ford says. Such speed and aggression
would have been unthinkable even three months ago.
Firestone has kept up the pressure on Explorers since releasing a report
alleging the vehicle's design defects. Norris notes that getting auto
industry researcher Dennis Guenther to write this report was a PR coup
for Firestone, since Guenther is normally known to testify and do
research for automakers rather than suppliers.
Buttering up Washington
Firestone has worked particularly hard on the lobbying side, hiring
Wallace Henderson, an associate of Rep. WJ Tauzin (R-LA). On June 6
Tauzin sent a letter to a federal regulatory agency asking it to address
safety questions about the Explorer, a move The Wall Street Journal
called a PR victory for Firestone. Other articles have explained some of
the technical aspects of tire mechanics in a way that suggests that
Firestone is actually briefing journalists.
Many crisis experts believe that this aggressive stance is
counterproductive (see survey, p. 1). Veteran crisis counselor Jim
Lukaszewski, warns that "attacking Ford will not draw a single customer
into a Firestone store." Firestone's call for a federal investigation of
Explorer safety could backfire, he adds. "If they start an
investigation, where is it going to stop?"
And Firestone hasn't completely changed, either. When the Free Press
tried to get an interview with researcher Guenther, it was told he was
too busy to talk.
Firestone's Bratina says she has no plans let the press engage Guenther.
"We're going to let him do his work," she says.
Other journalists question whether Lampe has been made available enough
and see Firestone favoring The New York Times and The Wall Street
While there has been criticism of the public nature of this spat,
Firestone believes it had no alternative but to go on the offensive.
Even when the two parties appeared to have declared a cease-fire after
the initial media explosion, "Firestone was being pulverized in
Congress," says a Washington, DC lobbyist.
After making its first-ever public affairs appointment, the focus has
been on building relations in Congress through lobbyists. As well as
Tauzin, Lampe met with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). "Lampe came across as
credible, sincere," says the source.
Firestone also believes it was being cornered by Ford. The first
Firestone knew of the recall was from an article by New York Times
reporter Keith Bradsher. (Firestone had been cozying up to Bradsher
before that, according to motoring journalists, given his reputation in
Detroit as a journalist with anti-SUV sentiments.)
Whether Firestone's aggressive approach is having an effect in the court
of public opinion is a moot point.
Eisenstein says an unscientific poll he's been taking on his site shows
more people undecided about who is to blame for the Firestone/Ford mess
than a year ago. When asked, "Who is winning the PR war?" 36.3% of
respondents say Ford, 15.2% say Firestone and dollars 48.4% say
"A year ago," notes Eisenstein, "there was no question in people's minds
that Ford did an overwhelmingly good job." The high percentage of people
who are undecided suggests this isn't necessarily the case today.
A Detroit News Internet poll shows a divided public - 37% say they
wouldn't ride on Firestone tires, but 30% say they wouldn't drive an
Firestone's Bratina points to a Washington Post poll in which 74% of
respondents say Ford is at fault, and only 9.8% say Firestone.
Bratina says Lampe's and the company's actions haven't been guided by PR
concerns. "Our decision was based on moral and ethical
responsibilities." Lampe wanted to address the media about the Explorer
last year when he took over as Firestone CEO, but didn't have all the
information he thought he would need. "We now have data we did not have
before," Bratina explains. Firestone's new approach was Lampe's
decision, she adds.
Those outside the company see Firestone's moves in distinctly PR-driven
terms, however. "Something like this is never a branding opportunity;
Firestone needs to stem the PR tide," says Patrick Kinney, an SVP with
Ogilvy Public Relations. "You've got bet the brand time."
A long-time auto industry PR expert agrees: "At this point, I don't know
if it really is about consumers. The focus is on the courts and the
Firestone's fight for consumers' hearts and minds will come later.
Bratina says the company intends to step up consumer-oriented PR and
points to ads featuring Lampe as a first step.
Other PR experts argue, however, that the Lampe ad - and indeed the
message that "it's not us; it's them" - fails to get across any sense of
remorse, or of mutual responsibility. "I think the feeling inside the
company is that it's done enough apologizing and needs to move on," says
a source close to the situation. "That was the message it was getting
from its dealers, who have been very supportive. They're tired of
apologizing and feel wronged, and want to fight back."
That Firestone wants to move on is clear from its other activities.
Journalists note that it is pushing the fact that its tires are widely
used on race cars, using Mario and Michael Andretti as spokespeople, and
holding consumer test drives around the country. Ads to this effect are
now being aired, pushing Firestone's racing car pedigree.
But the concern must be that the market is not ready for this. "And it's
targeted at the wrong audience," notes another crisis expert. "The
consumer audience is concerned mothers, and they've got no interest in