A
survey of America’s top public relations executives shows that Ford appears to
have gained the upper hand in the battle for consumer approval and confidence.

The corporate reputation survey, conducted among the 130 member companies of
the Council of Public Relations Firms, the trade association for the public
relations industry, found that 66 percent of the senior executives disagree
with Firestone’s firing the opening salvo by ending a 95-year relationship as
a tyre supplier to Ford.

An almost equal number (65 percent) of the reputation management specialists
agree with Ford’s decision to spend $US3 billion to replace 13 million of the
Firestone tyres now on its vehicles.

Council president Jack Bergen said the survey was conducted "to examine
this landmark communications issue, which could have a profound impact on corporate
relationships, brand value and consumer attitudes for years to come."

Survey respondents were asked to evaluate options open to Bridgestone/Firestone
to restore consumer confidence, including eliminating the Firestone brand name,
offering a $US100,000 quality guarantee on each new tyre, publicly blaming Ford’s
Explorer for the accidents, and hiring a highly credible spokesperson.


Strategic
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Ford


They were also asked their opinion of how both companies’ actions are being
perceived and whether the shattered relationship and ensuing hostility between
Ford and Firestone could have been avoided.

Of the 87 PR executives who participated in the survey, 66 percent disagreed
with Firestone’s decision to stop supplying Ford with tyres.

Their comments included:

  • "From a vendor perspective, Firestone should have done everything in
    its power to make things right for Ford. It’s just not good business, not
    to mention cutting off a major source of cash flow for them."
  • "It fails to address the core question: How safe are Firestone tyres?"
  • "They were able to damage Ford, but did nothing to restore confidence
    in their own products."
  • "It doesn’t show a commitment to their overall business, to their tyre
    quality or to their customers."
  • "By drawing a line in the sand, Firestone has passed the point of no
    return. They now have an antagonistic relationship with Ford, rather than
    a joint initiative to ensure safety and demonstrate their product’s quality."
  • "It makes Firestone look churlish, vindictive and defensive."
  • "Nobody wins in a war. It’s important to point out that people’s loyalty
    to their car is far greater than to the brand of tyre they have on that car.
    Ford, not Firestone is in the driver’s seat."

Comments from those who agreed with Firestone’s action included:

  • "The cars and the tyres are a bad combination, and Firestone did what
    should have been done."
  • "Knowing that Ford was going to launch a massive recall of their tyres,
    Firestone had to do something, dramatic to avoid having the final nail put
    in their reputation."
  • "Their accusations may appear to appear baseless and seem desperate.
    But if Ford was not being an open partner and was trying to make them scapegoats,
    then the separation may help Firestone make a clean break."
  • "If Firestone’s product is safe, but it’s being used in an unsafe manner,
    Firestone has no choice."

Asked if, from a corporate reputation viewpoint, whether they agreed or disagreed
with Ford’s decision, announced the next day, to recall 13 million Firestone
tyres at a cost of $US3 billion, 65 percent of respondents agreed.


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Asked what was the best course of action for Bridgestone/Firestone to regain
credibility and prevent further erosion of the parent company’s U.S. market
share, the majority (62 percent) picked the statement: “Vigorously publicly
defend and demonstrate the safety of the Firestone tyres being produced today
by providing clear details of manufacturing improvements, as well as support
from independent safety experts and agencies”.

Asked how Ford’s decision to recall the tyres was being seen, 62 percent agreed
it was an attempt to limit responsibility in the Explorer accidents by bolstering
its argument that the car is safe and that defective Firestone tyres were at
fault. Thirty-five percent agreed that it was a genuine demonstration of Ford’s
commitment to safety.

Sixty-eight percent agreed that Firestone’s decision to stop supplying tyres
to Ford was being seen as an attempt to limit responsibility in the Explorer
accidents by claiming that the vehicle is unsafe.

However, 85 percent of respondents agreed that if, over the last year, Ford
and Firestone had worked together, instead of publicly attacking each other,
their 95-year-old business relationship could have been be saved and the damage
being done to their credibility and to consumer confidence in both companies
could have been avoided.

Bergen said the prevailing opinion was best expressed by comments from three
senior public relations executives who participated in the council’s survey:

  • "This debacle demonstrates a complete breakdown in communications between
    the two companies. Publicly slugging it out isn’t going to do anyone any good."
  • "The real question is why didn’t these two supposedly responsible,
    respectable companies join forces to discover the root of the problem and
    solve it together, instead of throwing blame around like two adolescents having
    a food fight. Where were their crisis counsellors – or weren’t they listening
    to them?"
  • "There absolutely had to be a better way to do this. As a public relations
    executive and a consumer, I am shocked by both companies’ actions. What could
    Ford or Firestone ever hope to achieve by bashing each other publicly? No
    one wins here. Both companies are losers."






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