Media-Savvy Adversaries Changed Crisis Communications Forever

(First in a three-part series examining corporate crisis communications in the 21st century.)

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Back in the 1990s, analysis of crisis communications centered on two archetypal case studies: the ’82 Tylenol recall (good) and the ‘89 Exxon Valdez oil spill (bad). The lessons learned from what Johnson & Johnson famously did well, and Exxon infamously did not, can be boiled down to: Respond quickly to a problem; express empathy and compassion for any injured parties; speak frequently to the media without speculating about anything before you’re absolutely sure, and institute a comprehensive remedy as soon as possible. 

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That simple formula remains good advice. But in the summer of 2000 a new dynamic emerged that changed crisis communications forever – media-savvy adversaries who could take control of the news cycle during an extended crisis. Befitting the first major corporate crisis of the new century, the Ford-Firestone tire recall  rewrote the corporate communicator’s playbook.

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Asked recently about the epic tire crisis for a "Thought Leader" piece in the Bulldog Reporter’s Daily Dog, I recounted the deluge of media inquiries we handled at Ford. For 14 straight weeks beginning in early August, the Firestone mess was a page one story nationally nearly every day. (It took the November Presidential election stalemate – remember those hanging chads? – to finally knock it off the front pages.)

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What kept the tire saga so hot for so long? Let's be clear: At the center of the media storm was the reality of a large number of tragic accidents attributed to Firestone tire tread separations, nearly all on Ford vehicles. Firestone_tire_1How many? It's difficult to say, because there were literally tens of millions of similar Firestone tires on the road (in a series of recalls in 2000-01 Firestone and Ford recalled 27 million Firestone Wilderness tires). By early December 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had attributed 148 deaths to accidents involving the suspect tires.

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(There is no way to speak or write about these tragic occurrences that is completely respectful of the people killed or injured in the accidents, and my analysis of the media dynamic is trivial in comparison.)

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Clearly other unique factors kept the crisis newsworthy as well, not the least of which was the strained relationship — and eventually open warfare — between two companies that had enjoyed a close relationship for nearly 100 years. And a Congressional hearing September 12 certainly kept things interesting. But what really stoked the media fires were daily leaks of seemingly damning internal Ford and Firestone documents by media-savvy plaintiff attorneys.

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Each day, the trial lawyers would take one of thousands of documents that were part of litigation already in progress against Ford or Firestone and fax it to a number of national news organizations along with a less-than-complete version of the story behind that particular document. Typically the story line would be that Ford had known about the tire defect years earlier, or had cut corners in the safety testing of the Explorer sport utility vehicle. Invariably, these allegations did not pass muster when one considered other related facts conveniently left out by the plaintiff attorneys. And the narrow focus on some particular aspect of the product development process judged in hindsight obscured the Explorer's overall safety record which was better than most other vehicles on the road.

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Each afternoon my cell phone and pager would erupt as journalists from a dozen or so news organizations would be calling, all chasing the same story. Often the story the plaintiff attorney had concocted around a carefully chosen portion of a document fell apart when you read the context of the entire document. We became pretty nimble at rebutting the various partial truths and outright fabrications being fed to the media.

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Most of the national media were reasonably fair and diligent in working to understand the complexities of each issue. But some would not let additional facts get in the way of the juicy stories they'd been fed by the plaintiff attorneys (who clearly were motivated by the scent of big, big money). The TV news networks were the worst. They'd contact us after the piece was in the final stages of production for the evening newscast; they'd just kept a short slot for our sound bite response. So much for any ability to shape the direction of the piece.

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Aside from our continued frustration with network television, our communications team grew increasingly adept at mitigating the damage from these daily leaks. So the trial lawyers changed tactics. Instead of feeding several journalists the same story each day that we could quickly refute, or at least balance, they began faxing a unique story lead to each of several journalists each day. That meant we'd have to track down "the rest of the story" for several different issues simultaneously, each for a national journalist on deadline. Meanwhile, other members of our public relations team would be answering dozens of inquiries from other journalists chasing stories from previous days. Needless to say, we kept updating our massive Q&A to include each new allegation and our response.

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The trial lawyers were able to generate this continuous stream of story ideas because they collaborated with each other and with a number of attorney resource groups, which had also become quite media savvy. With disarmingly benevolent names like safetyforum.com and the Center for Auto Safety, these resource groups often are portrayed as unbiased sources of information when in fact they are another piece of the litigation profit machine.

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Next post: Consumer-generated media presents a new frontier for an adversary stakeholder web. Are you ready for an all-out assault on your company's reputation?

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- Jon Harmon

Comments

  1. Gus Sinks says:

    whatever happened to saying, “We are sorry, we made a mistake.” And owning up to problem of your own making. I guess ridiculous court settlements generated by the trial lawyers obfuscated that possibility. I wonder Ford’s recent performance(or lack thereof)would be different if they had handled that crisis more openly.

  2. Angel says:

    so you know of any cases where a company had to handle bad rumours about it?
    thanks!

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