ANALYSIS: Ford/Firestone - Firestone gets proactive, but is PR warworking? The PR strategy of Firestone has changed dramatically. But towhat extent is it working? John Frank and Adam Leyland report

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

shouting match.

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

PR defensive.

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, 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.)

Who's winning?

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


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