PR TECHNIQUE CRISIS PR: Lessons of a blowout - What can we learn from the Ford/Firestone tire recall? As John Frank explains, unlike the Tylenol crisis, the problem is that they just can't seem to put a lid on it

While the Ford-Firestone tire recall drags on, crisis communications lessons already are emerging from the debacle. Chief among them: crisis communicators need to constantly re-examine their standard operating procedures to stay relevant and timely. Focusing first on tactics rather than goals can spell long-term failure for a crisis response.

While the Ford-Firestone tire recall drags on, crisis communications lessons already are emerging from the debacle. Chief among them: crisis communicators need to constantly re-examine their standard operating procedures to stay relevant and timely. Focusing first on tactics rather than goals can spell long-term failure for a crisis response.

While the Ford-Firestone tire recall drags on, crisis communications lessons already are emerging from the debacle. Chief among them: crisis communicators need to constantly re-examine their standard operating procedures to stay relevant and timely. Focusing first on tactics rather than goals can spell long-term failure for a crisis response.

'Some people are of the opinion that if I paid for this (crisis) plan, then I must use it,' says Oliver Schmidt, senior partner with C4CS, a Charlotte, NC-based crisis firm. 'But you just can't write a plan that will cover every possible problem.'

Most of the crisis communications dogma in place today grew out of Johnson & Johnson's massive Tylenol recall of 1982 and the Pepsi syringe scare of 1993. Among the tactics born of those cases is the now oft-repeated dictum 'get out in front of the crisis' - meaning a company needs to do something quickly to show it's on top of the situation.

Another tactic to come from Tylenol and Pepsi is using a CEO apology to put a human face on a company and show its concern. Additional now-standard crisis operating procedures include quickly determining the extent of the problem and, in crisis jargon, 'building a wall' around it - in other words, telling the public 'we know where the problem occurred and can fix it.'

But crisis experts say relying on such tried-and-true tactics without first examining how a particular crisis may differ from those of the past has become the PR equivalent of army generals fighting the last war. Tactics and communications weapons that worked before may not be right for your problem here and now.

Set goals first, plan later

Crisis communications needs to start not with a crisis plan, but with a determination of the goals for that plan. 'You mustn't be a slave to any tactics,' says Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates, a New York crisis firm. 'What works in one place doesn't necessarily work in another. Don't just be a follower.'

Rather, first determine how a company can do the right thing from the point of view of the public. Says Larry Kamer, chairman of GCI Kamer Singer: 'Make sure the world knows that your number one priority is coming to the aid of those people' affected by a crisis.

The troubles facing Ford and Firestone have some fundamental differences from what Tylenol and Pepsi experienced, most notably that the Tylenol and Pepsi crises did not arise from any action of the companies. Someone put poison into Tylenol capsules; Pepsi was a victim of hoaxers claiming they found needles and other objects in Pepsi cans.

Ford and Firestone have yet to nail down the cause of Firestone tires falling apart on Ford Explorer SUVs, but the problem undoubtedly rests with company procedures, not sabotage by outsiders.

In crises, notes Kamer, 'nine and a half times out of 10 you have to communicate before the facts are in.' That's why it's more important to communicate values than to try and demonstrate a grasp of all the details of a crisis.

Pepsi and Johnson & Johnson before it each faced their crisis alone.

Ford and Firestone are in theirs together, yet their finger-pointing at each other has soured the public and Congress, which is now considering a wide range of legislative responses to the problem and seems to have won a long battle with the auto industry to start regulating SUVs.

'One thing that almost never works,' says Kamer, 'is pointing the finger of blame.'

Outside of blasting Firestone for its troubles, Ford largely has been following standard crisis procedure. Early on, it tried to build a wall around the problem, identifying Firestone tires from the tire maker's Decatur, IL, plant as the defective ones. As Ford continued its own defense, its target grew to be Firestone itself, with Ford CEO Jacques Nasser telling one Congressional panel he was shocked by what he heard Firestone officials say concerning when they first knew of tire problems.

Ford went so far as to shut down some Explorer production lines to free up replacement tires, a move analysts estimated cost the company dollars 250 million. The number of tires made available was relatively small compared with the 6.5 million to be replaced, but the symbolism was large of a caring company doing what it could in a crisis.

Ford received high marks for its initial crisis communications work.

Nasser took a by-the-book approach by making television commercials, telling the American public that his company cares about their safety and was doing what it could to get defective tires off Explorers.

But as the troubles drag on, and as more questions crop up about exactly what Ford knew and when, some have begun to question Ford's almost knee-jerk response to the crisis.

Who's best to apologize?

The effectiveness of Nasser's apology has been questioned. His demeanor seemed gruff and his appearance formal and stiff. Some say William Clay Ford Jr., chairman of the company and great-grandson of founder Henry Ford, might have been a more effective spokesman. 'When they were going on American television, they were dealing with a product that has the Ford name on it,' says Levi Rabinowitz, managing director with 911 Crisis Media Relations in Baltimore. 'They should have put a Ford on TV.'

Ford finally spoke out on the issue after a recent company directors meeting, but he and the company have expressed confidence in Nasser as the point person on the crisis, saying that's the CEO's role in such a situation.

Compounding Ford's PR fumblings, Nasser's televised apology was one of many by corporate execs this summer, diluting its value. (United Airlines, Ameritech and Mitsubishi in Japan are among the companies whose top brass made on-screen mea culpas.) 'I think the media has scoffed enough' at corporate CEO apologies, says Ron Culp, VP of PR and government affairs at Sears Roebuck & Co. The ineffectiveness of recent company apologies, he believes, 'will cause other CEOs to rethink' if they find themselves in similar situations.

While CEOs are more PR-savvy since the Tylenol case and now often feel they must go on TV in a crisis, says Culp, a CEO response is not always the best course of action. Others agree, says Rubenstein: 'The PR person has a tremendous responsibility not to be bludgeoned by the CEO into doing something inappropriate to the situation.'

Management at Firestone (which has been owned by Japan's Bridgestone since 1988) didn't rely on the Tylenol blueprint. Its response was, if anything, pre-Tylenol - hard-line stonewalling. Some blame its lawyers, but others note that Bridgestone's attitude may have stemmed from cultural differences between the US and Japan: Japanese media are not as aggressive as the American press and Japanese companies are rarely castigated in public for product problems.

Eventually, Firestone's intransigence cost it its PR counsel: Fleishman-Hillard walked away from the account over the Labor Day weekend largely because Firestone refused to take its advice to be more aggressive in its communications.

Around the same time, a Gallup poll found that only 17% of Americans would disregard the Firestone recall in making tire-buying decisions.

In the same survey, more than three quarters of Americans were monitoring the saga.

Firestone's own small PR staff was overwhelmed by press inquiries. Japanese management did not seem to grasp the full extent of US attention on the problem - this can be a major issue when handling crises that cross national boundaries. Coca-Cola fell into a similar trap last year in Belgium, when local managers didn't tell US headquarters the magnitude of a series of tampering cases and a resulting recall, so that when a US exec finally came over the situation had already blown up into a PR inferno.

Firestone initially proposed a phased recall of problem tires, a purely business decision based on its ability to produce needed replacements.

But that decision turned into a PR debacle as tire owners in states not covered by the first phase of the recall protested loudly, and both state and class action lawsuits followed.

Communications experts say the company also stumbled when it tried to fix blame for tire problems on poor tire inflation and maintenance. While a USA Today survey published September 20 found that most people don't properly inflate their tires, trying to make drivers solely responsible for some 100 known deaths in tire-related accidents seemed heartless.

In Japan, the value of Bridgestone's stock fell by dollars 10 billion before recovering slightly. The company said the recall would cost it dollars 350 million, but that estimate is likely to sharply increase by the time the recall ends. North America accounts for 40% of Bridgestone sales.

Firestone has now brought in Ketchum to handle the crisis. Ketchum won't discuss its plan publicly other than to say it wants to do a better job answering reporter inquiries, but the firm seems to have put Firestone on a more aggressive path, especially in shifting blame to Ford.

Even while a Firestone executive took responsibility for faulty products in a second round of Congressional hearings, he kept up the attack on Ford's SUVs as part of the problem. In a third round of hearings on September 21, Firestone EVP John Lampe was even more anti-Ford, telling a House subcommittee that 'running an Explorer at low tire pressure, overloaded, particularly in hot climates, appears to be a serious part of the problem we are now facing.' Ford had been recommending a lower tire pressure than Firestone for the tires involved.

Such finger-pointing may help in court, say experts, but won't spruce up Firestone's image with the public. It's important that companies involved in a crisis work together to calm public concerns, not fight each other.

For its part, Firestone hasn't done enough to discuss the quality of its product, crisis experts say. In the automotive world, says Rabinowitz of 911 Crisis, ''Japanese' has grown to be synonymous with 'quality' in the American mind.' Firestone, he says, 'should have used that to be proactive' about the quality of its tires.

But its parent company might have pulled the rug out: senior Japanese executives have said publicly that they didn't apply the same quality standards at Firestone as at Bridgestone.

Now it might all be too late. Crisis management in the Internet age means getting responses out quickly and directly, says Kamer of GCI, including use of company Web sites for basic information for reporters.

But the biggest lesson from Ford and Firestone is that any crisis response from a company has to take into account what consumers want to hear, not just what a company thinks might minimize financial impact or protect it legally. Steps like Firestone's phased tire replacement plan, while minimizing short-term costs, can only result in long-term lack of credibility.

'A crisis is a human event,' says Rabinowitz, 'not a business event.'

Companies in crisis should also think twice about the appropriateness of CEO apologies and other standard crisis responses. Start with the goal of addressing consumer concerns and work back from there, experts say.

'Too often (companies) don't ask 'what is the right thing to do,' they ask 'how do we get out of this?'' says Rubenstein. Unless that corporate mind-set is changed, no crisis plan will insulate a company from the long-term damage, both inside and outside 'the wall.'



THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN CRISIS

Ford tries to follow the tried-and-tested rules of crisis management, from locating the Firestone's Decatur, Il plant as the likely culprit to positioning Ford CEO Jacques Nasser as a company spokesman.

- Bridgestone/Firestone initially relies on hardline stone-walling tactics and loses PR company Fleishman-Hillard by refusing to take its advice to be more aggressive in its crisis communications.

- Ford shuts down some Explorer production to free up replacement tires - a move estimated to cost the company dollars 250 million. The symbolism is there of a caring company doing what it could in a crisis.

- As crisis drags on, more questions remain unanswered about what Ford knew about the tire problem with its Explorers and when. Some begin to question the company's almost knee-jerk response.

- Nasser's TV apology is criticized as formal and stiff and his message is diluted by being one of many recent CEO TV apologies.

- Both point the finger of blame at each other. This sours the public and Congressional authorities, who are now considering a wide range of legislative responses to the crisis.

- Bridgestone's initial attempt at a tire recall is poorly thought-out and becomes a PR nightmare as tire owners in all states are not covered in the first phase. Law suits follow.

- Bridgestone tries to blame poor tire inflation and maintenance for the problem, which comes across to the public as heartless.

- New stories start to emerge from all corners of the globe. A similar crisis recall begins in Venezuela. The public learns that the companies first became aware of the problem in Saudi Arabia and that Bridgestone/Firestone chooses to handle the problem only on a case-by-case basis.

- Bridgestone brings in Ketchum to handle its crisis work, and the PR agency puts the company on a more aggressive course that seeks to apportion greater blame on the role of the Explorer.





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