Ford, Firestone in a PR freefall

Impact: Slow reaction by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone to problems with Firestone tires exacerbated the situation and turned it into a consumer debacle, crisis management experts say.

September 17, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

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.

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