Crisis Communications Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Yesterday I participated in a “PR University” panel discussion on crisis communications. For an hour and a half, we covered a wide waterfront in a fast-moving, informative session. Here are a few take-aways from my part of the discussion, centering on the Ford-Firestone tire crisis of 2000-01.

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Worst mistake: Taking too long to see the issue through the eyes of our customers. Rigorous examination of accident statistics and accident reports, tire tests and vehicle dynamics testing consistently showed that the Ford Explorer behaved in the real world at least as safely as any similar-sized SUV would have under similar circumstances, and that the propensity for certain Firestone tires to rip apart suddenly was causing the epidemic of crashes, many of them deadly.

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It’s a tire issue,” we kept saying, as we shot down one theory after another about how the Explorer might somehow be shredding its tires or that its stability had been knowingly compromised during its development.

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But that missed the point. Our customers hadn’t wandered into a Ford dealership and said, “I want a new car; anything is fine as long as the tires are Firestones.” No, they had bought an Explorer from Ford and expected that all its equipment, including its tires, would perform safely. Put another way, a customer buying a hamburger from McDonald’s who finds a rancid pickle in his sandwich doesn’t blame Vlassic or whoever made the pickle; he expects McDonald’s to sell him a perfectly edible and complete hamburger, and that’s where he’ll take his complaint.

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The take-away from that experience: Your company will be judged by the totality of its products, regardless of where they come from, and in today’s world of greatly increased expectations of a corporation’s social responsibility, your company will be judged by the actions of your suppliers as well as your own. So don’t think your obligations end with the morality of your own operations; if one of your Tier Two or even Tier Three suppliers is profiteering from slave labor overseas, for example, it’s your crisis, too.

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Best practice: We truly did many things well as we dealt with an avalanche of media calls every day for weeks on end. But one aspect of media relations that I’m particularly proud of is how well my team and I quickly acquired a deep understanding of the many technical issues involved.

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I can still recall without looking at any notes our answers addressing the changes made in Venezuela and Australia to stiffen the ride compliance of the Explorer to better satisfy customer needs in those countries – where rough roads and high-speed driving often go hand-in hand. And how those changes were portrayed as safety improvements to the vehicle’s suspension that had not been made in North America (where customers expect a comfortable ride); accusations by plaintiff attorneys looking to drive large settlements from Ford. And so many other accusations fed to the media that required a technical understanding of the vehicles and tires involved.

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With literally millions of Explorers being driven billions of miles each year under a huge range of conditions, crashes of nearly every foreseeable kind were inevitable. The fact that statistically drivers and passengers in Explorers were safer than the “average vehicle” (fewer fatalities per million miles) did not lessen the suffering of families losing loved ones, or the wrenching emotional impact of accident footage and photos. We did our best to be respectful of victims while vigorously defending the company and the brand against untrue accusations.

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We did our homework, listening carefully as our engineers explained principles of driving dynamics – what circumstances produce under steer or over steer, why a tread separation on a rear tire could often be more difficult to control than one on a front tire. And on and on. The small media relations team I led understood technical issues better than our adversaries. We had to – it’s easier to make an accusation that gets a journalist excited about a juicy story of willful neglect than it is to thoroughly and methodically disprove these theories. And when you’re dealing with dozens of media on deadline there is no room for error or lack of information.

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Every morning very early we would meet with the engineers and tire experts to increase our understanding of these technical issues. And we stayed together all day in a large executive conference room (which later grew to two, three and then four nearby conference rooms dedicated to managing the crisis), so that we could track down answers to the day’s new questions and accusations. At least once a day, we would take a break from everything and huddle together – PR people, engineers, customer service people, the ad hoc tire procurement team, the lawyers and a number of senior executives to go through a status update of every aspect of the crisis we were managing, including communications. And our media relations team would huddle periodically by ourselves to compare notes on the day’s questions and to make sure we were consistent in the responses we each were making to the media.

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Post script: Yes, we made mistakes along the way. But our efforts to defend Ford’s reputation and the Explorer brand paid off. Higher gas prices and changing consumer tastes have taken the bloom off the rose for all mid-size SUVs in the past year or so, certainly including the Explorer. That tends to obscure the remarkable resilience of the Explorer brand in the first five years of this decade despite the unprecedented barrage of accusations in the national media for so many weeks in the summer and fall of 2000, and again in the spring of 2001.

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In a Sept. 5, 2002 Detroit News front page lead story headlined, ”Resilient Explorer rides high again,” Mark Truby reported that the Explorer had the previous month recorded its best sales month ever with 52,021, a record for any SUV that undoubtedly still stands today.

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“With the exception of Tylenol, which rebounded from an ugly package-tampering controversy,” Truby wrote, “it is nearly unheard of for a consumer product to pass through a blizzard of negative publicity and safety questions virtually unscathed.”

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That’s something to be proud of, and it didn’t happen without a lot of hard work.

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– Jon Harmon

Comments

  1. azrin says:

    I’m no expert, but driving trucks taught me that those tyres are actually recycled;retreaded and …. cut-n-pasted
    thus why U have that slip effect.
    Also, don’t forget that a drop of water in the air compressor when UR checking yr tyre will cause that to happen too! A very common happening with someone living up north and drive to a warmer south!

  2. Carol says:

    The tires are really an important part of a vehicle. It could cause an accident if they are not maintained properly.

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