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Ford, Firestone in a PR freefall


If Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. had only stepped forward together, ordered a recall of tires sooner, been more forthcoming with consumers early on, the companies' current debacle wouldn't have reached such epic proportions, experts say.

As it is, the crisis is destined to take its place in the textbooks among the most celebrated examples of bungled public relations with the 1982 Tylenol tampering, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the 1996 Texaco racial bias scandal, according to crisis managers.

"Right now, my opinion is not too good of the way Bridgestone/Firestone has handled this," said David M. Petrou, president and chief operating officer of Eisner Petrou and Associates Inc. "At the very least, you have a company that is not very forthcoming with the complete truth. At worst, you have a cover-up situation that may very well have contributed directly to people's deaths. I think Ford has done a nominally better job with public relations."

The full implications of the crisis involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires and their suspected role in more than 1,400 accidents and at least 88 deaths in the United States will not be known for some time. But some wonder whether the Firestone brand can survive and what Ford will have to do to win back consumer confidence.

Both companies had the opportunity to prevent it from spiraling out of control. But the window of opportunity for businesses when they are confronted with a public crisis is small. The first 24 hours are critical, experts said. And when those hours tick away, blunders become magnified.

"The most dangerous long-term effects are those from the very beginning," said David H. Nevins, president of Nevins & Associates Inc., a Hunt Valley-based marketing and public relations firm, who has taught crisis communications at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. "It is so important to do the right thing from minute one, because the early mistakes are the most difficult to recover from."

Brian J. Lewbart, vice president of marketing for Richardson, Myers & Donofrio Inc. and president of the Maryland chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, said that although Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford have done many of the right things recently, it might be too late to make a difference.

"If a company turns around its strategy after its first couple days, they could mitigate the damage, but I think the reports would be that it was a public relations move rather than true concern for consumer safety," Lewbart said. "The damage has been done in that they didn't show as a company that they were taking responsibility and that consumer safety was No. 1. To come back later and change course, people will see through that."

And the nature of journalism ensures that the companies' initial stances will be repeated in articles. "That part of the story never goes away," Lewbart said.

Some experts said that months before the batch of articles hit the news in late July and early August, a period existed when Firestone, if not both companies, should have come forward voluntarily with information and thereby curbed the public relations crisis that engulfs it.

But once the suspicions of flawed tires hit the media, there was no turning back. And the stance taken by the two companies has made matters worse.

Last month, Bridgestone/Firestone, a subsidiary of Japanese-based Bridgestone Corp., launched a recall of 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires that have been blamed in scores of deaths. Most of the tires, which can suffer blowouts and sudden loss of tread, were installed on the Explorer, the country's top-selling sport utility vehicle, and on light Ford trucks. Since the recall started Aug. 9, at least five deaths have been reported on U.S. highways in which treads reportedly separated on Firestone tires mounted on Explorers.

At first, Firestone and Ford insisted that the tires were safe, after a report July 31 by KHOU-TV in Houston that Ford had recalled Explorer SUVs with Firestone tires in three foreign countries.

In the days that followed, the uproar increased. However, it wasn't until Aug. 9 that Firestone issued its recall in this country.

Although both companies are taking hits for the handling of the situation, Ford typically receives higher marks.

Firestone "didn't aggressively deal with the issue right up front in a truthful way," Lewbart said. "When you don't hear them saying anything you expect the worst. ... They just did nothing really to reassure the public. Ford was much quicker in educating consumers; they were not as defensive."

Initial Firestone reaction

Firestone seemed to minimize the problem during the first few days of the crisis, said Keith M. Hearit, an associate professor of Communication at Western Michigan University.

"The initial disclosure didn't even identify the exact models of tires," he said. "Their major fault has been in not seeing from the start that they would have to institute a full recall to save the brand. They've always been one step behind."

Petrou and others agreed that cultural differences between Japan and the United States have complicated matters.

Ford missed its chance to come forward early and gain points with consumers, said David L. Blum, a vice president at Eisner Communications.

"Ford's entry was more reactive than proactive," he said. "If they had come forward with Firestone from the beginning, I think they would have been portrayed better than they are."

Even such things as the appearance and demeanor of the spokesmen for the companies have played roles in public perception, the experts said. One example would be Jacques Nasser, the chief executive officer of Ford.

"I think Mr. Nasser tried to make the public feel comfortable that Ford was doing all that they could be doing" when he made a rare appearance on television to discuss the crisis, said Phyllis B. Brotman, who heads a crisis management team at Gray, Kirk Van/Sant Inc. Brotman said he appeared stiff and too nicely dressed.

"They wouldn't have the daily tar and feathering if there weren't the new revelations," Hearit said. "The biggest mistake on the part of the apologies by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone is that they apologize one day, and the next day there are new revelations. They're getting into the position of offering a serial apology."

Crisis management should have been all too familiar to Firestone, which recalled 13 million radial tires - twice the number targeted this time - during the 1970s. The response then and now, was slow. The company fought the government for months before beginning the recall in 1978.

In both cases, experts said, the company tried to blame consumers. In the 1970s, it was for not taking care of the tires.

This time, Ford and Firestone are accusing customers of overloading vehicles and underinflating tires.

Blame to PR industry

At least one crisis management expert put the blame for the poor showing by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone on the public relations industry itself.

"I would blame an industry that's tried to cookie-cutter crisis management into an easily workable script," said Levi Rabinowitz, managing director of Baltimore-based 911 Crisis, Media Relations. "I would blame an industry that wrongfully constructs crisis as a business event rather than a human event."

Rabinowitz said the philosophy goes back to the Tylenol case, considered an excellent example of the right way to do public relations. Scripts were written then that are used in cases with dissimilar facts, he said.

In that crisis, Johnson & Johnson, which sells Tylenol, pulled its product from shelves nationwide after seven deaths in Chicago from capsules of Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide.

Although important lessons were learned from the speed with which Tylenol executives reacted, the experts noted that the example is different because Tylenol was a victim.

Ford, in business nearly 100 years, should have put a descendant of founder Henry Ford on television, Rabinowitz said.

They could say: "'My family name is on that truck,'" Rabinowitz said. "'You put your family in that truck. My family wants to make sure that your family is safe. The first thing we're going to do is put safe tires on your truck. Then we're going to find out what happened.'"

By taking the scripted approach, Ford opened up a Pandora's box and made itself appear culpable, he said.

Rabinowitz said Bridgestone/Firestone should have immediately told people where they could get tires replaced.

The minute you follow a script of apologizing, you've set in motion how the story is going to be played out, he said. "The press wants to find out what you knew and when you knew it," he said.

In the midst of the crisis, Bridgestone/Firestone's public relations company, Fleishman-Hillard, resigned, apparently because its executives were frustrated with Firestone's slow response to suspected tire failures.

The Washington office of Ketchum, a worldwide firm, won the account. Ketchum is a unit of New York-based Omnicom Group Inc.

Mark Schannon, a partner with Ketchum and director of the Washington office, said the first conversations with Bridgestone/Firestone occurred two days before Ketchum took the case Sept. 9.

"When companies find themselves in a controversial situation, they get very focused internally," Schannon said. "It's very easy to forget that there are a lot of audiences out there with a need for information."

As Bridgestone/Firestone announced its Ketchum alliance, Masatoshi Ono, its chief executive officer, said: "We know that we have been slow in responding to public concerns, that we underestimated the intensity of the situation, and that we have been too focused on internal details. As a result, there is a high degree of concern about our motives and behavior. We are determined to change all that."

Material for teaching

There is such a consensus that public relations have been bungled that the crisis is proving fertile material for college lectures and crisis management classes.

This example will be a touchstone for a long time to come, said William L. Benoit, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who is using it in his classes.

"The crisis is immediately relevant to everyone in our audience," said Mack A. Bradley, senior team leader at the Vandiver Group in St. Louis. "This is about as close as you can get to giving participants an opportunity to interact in real time with an ongoing crisis."

So far, four separate clips have been used in six classes, Bradley said. But among those clips, compiled in mid-August, there is little material of Firestone responding to the issue because of its delayed reaction, he said.

In one CNN clip, the commentator reported that Firestone had declined to be interviewed, saying it had no one available to talk.

"When we went out and did the search, the net that came back didn't have much Firestone in it," he said. By late last week, however, Vandiver was to have obtained footage of the congressional hearings, which contains testimony by executives from both companies, Bradley said.

Competing interests

Unlike most crises, this one involves two huge companies with competing interests.

Ford wants to make sure the sales of its top-selling and high-profit Explorer don't suffer, while Firestone wants to protect its tire sales - positions that have pitted the two against one another and resulted in finger-pointing.

On Sept. 11, the day the president of Ford's Venezuelan unit said that its Explorers, implicated in 46 fatal accidents in that country, are safe when equipped with "adequate tires," a Bridgestone executive in Tokyo made a different point.

Yoichiro Kaizaki, president of Bridgestone Corp., said he was struck by the high accident rate only for Ford Explorers fitted with Bridgestone/Firestone tires. "The accident rate for other cars is dramatically lower," he said.

"You're seeing a lot of finger-pointing," Nevins said.

But the public doesn't like to see companies shifting the blame, the experts said.

"In some sense, no response is better than shifting the blame," said Hearit, the Western Michigan professor. "And we all know how bad a no-comment is. That's how low a shifting-the-blame policy plays with people."

Compound that with the blame the companies have shifted on to consumers.

"On the one hand, they're saying, 'We take full responsibility,' and, on the other hand, they're pointing fingers at one another and at the consumer," said Owen Blicksilver, managing director of the New York office of Citigate Dewe Rogerson, a worldwide public relations firm, who was consulted by an adviser to Bridgestone/Firestone to identify crisis counselors.

"They did not act in concert, and that was detrimental to both," Blicksilver said. "It probably hasn't helped the companies that this is an election year, and Congress wants to show that they are on the side of the consumer."

If Bridgestone/Firestone didn't recall the tires, then Ford should have fired them, he said.

"You need to do what you have to do to protect your customer relationships," Blicksilver said. "They needed to find a way to work together or end that relationship."

It is unclear what will happen to the longstanding relationship between Ford and Firestone.

"I think you'll ultimately see [Ford] scale back or eliminate Firestone," Blicksilver said. "I think what's happened here is so damaging that you can't predict how the consumer is going to respond. You don't know if they're going to hold Ford responsible and not buy a Ford or just say, 'I don't want Firestone tires on it."'

And consumers have short attention spans, Blicksilver said.

"In six or nine months, when it's off the front pages, you don't know what will happen," he said.

Still, many experts question whether the Firestone brand can survive.

"Firestone's future as a brand name in America is in jeopardy," Nevins said. "But what that means for Bridgestone, I don't know. Firestone had this image of being a brand leader, and now it's virtually gone. They've gone from the top of the world in terms of reputation to the bottom, and now even to being the butt of jokes. It didn't have to happen."

Firestone's reputation has been, if not destroyed, severely damaged, Nevins said.

"It will be a multiyear process to recover," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me if it never happens, if they choose to sell the company to someone who changes its name."

Experts noted one example of a company that didn't make it. ValuJet could not survive a test of public confidence after one of its flights crashed in the Florida Everglades in 1996, and had to change its name to AirTran Airways.

Blicksilver said he has noted subtle language in the comments of the Bridgestone president that could serve to distance the parent company from the Firestone brand should that company not make a comeback.

Kaizaki said he wished the parent company had exercised more control over its U.S. operations. "We should have applied our standards to things like technology and quality assurance," the executive said.

Hearit said both companies have reached a level of desperation in which liability concerns are no longer paramount.

"I think both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, especially Bridgestone/Firestone, have reached the point that survival of the Firestone brand and the repair of Ford's relationships with its customers outweigh the liability concerns," Hearit said. "I think that there's a recognition that they're going to be sued no matter what. There's a thought that if they're more forthcoming or conciliatory, maybe fewer people will be suing them."

For now, crisis experts agree that this one has no end in sight.

"It's not going to go away until people can get their tires replaced, and people are still dying," Blicksilver said.

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