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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
Firestone may be hoping a federal report due out this summer will paint
the vehicle as the culprit in accidents involving Firestone tires on
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
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
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
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
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."