Tag Archives: Ford Firestone crisis

What should Toyota do? Advice from the Ford-Firestone experience.

We were very fortunate to spend an hour and a half on a webinar this morning with Jon Harmon, author of the book Feeding Frenzy, and the crisis communicator in the middle of the Ford-Firestone crisis (for you young folks, this occurred in 2000). Jon’s phone was ringing away with reporters calling to ask him what he thought about Toyota’s problems with the huge recall and shut down of production–no doubt the biggest reputation challenge in the auto industry since the Ford-Firestone problems ten years ago (barring the meltdown of course). Jon will be interviewed on CNBC shortly, but you can get the scoop here.

I asked Jon during the Q&A session on this webinar what he would say to the CEO if he had a seat at the table of executives as he did at Ford. He said, “I would ask them first if they are doing enough? Are they doing all they can to protect the public? What about Lexus–they are keeping that out, but should they be looking at that too?” Then he said, “they should ask the question ‘what are people most worried about?’ and ask how we are addressing their concerns. We need to be clear about how we are addressing them.”

What struck me about Jon’s comments, clearly coming from the voice of experience, is how they well they mesh with the basic message about trust that we talk about all the time. Trust, we say, depends on two things: doing the right things, then communicating about them well. Jon is very right in advising that they first be concerned about the realities of protecting the public. No amount of posturing or spinning will compensate for decisions that don’t go to the fullest extent possible in addressing real safety concerns. But, if they are doing all those things, they need to be very aggressive and very clear about the actions they are taking. Jon talked about all the Twitter chatter and social media activity around Toyota and no doubt most of it is pretty ugly. I was interviewed by CNN Money a few days ago for my thoughts on Toyota’s reputation and I haven’t seen any of my comments showing up. They probably won’t because I did not quite see this as the blow to Toyota’s reputation that the current media hype is making it.  I related their reputation problems to a bigger issue of becoming the world’s largest and dominating auto manufacturer–an achievement that puts a huge target on them and certainly for the media as well as those who hate all things big and powerful. That is a more challenging issue long term for Toyota. However, the current spate of safety issues, recalls, accusations and negative reporting don’t help in that overall battle one bit.

I’ve asked Jon to contribute a guest post on crisisblogger and hopefully he’ll have time to do that. In the meantime, go out and get a copy of Feeding Frenzy.

You're Invited–Listen to the inside story of the Ford Firestone crisis

I’d like to personally invite all crisisblogger readers to a webinar with Jon Harmon this Thursday. Jon was the lead public relations person for Ford during this crisis, the first big crisis of the new century in 2000, and one of the biggest business and reputation crises of all time. He had a front row seat to this devastating crisis which set Ford on its heels, ended an over 100 year business relationship, and permanently ended one of the most revered brands in tires. Jon has written an outstanding book on this called Feeding Frenzy and this Thursday you’ll have the chance to listen to Jon tell his story. There will be time for some questions and interaction.

By the way, Dave Fleet took my advice and got the book. Here is his review–I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Webinar: Feeding Frenzy with Jon Harmon

Sponsored by PIER Systems

Time: 2:pm ET, Noon CT, 11 a.m. PT

We will send you an invitation to join the webinar. To register click here.

The Lessons from Ford Firestone crisis still important today

Yesterday I had the distinct privilege of hosting Jon Harmon presenting a webinar to our PIER Strategy Forum. Jon is the former chief of PR for Ford trucks and was the lead crisis communicator for Ford during the infamous Ford/Firestone crisis of 2000. Jon has written a very compelling book about this event called “Feeding Frenzy.” The book has just been released and I can tell you having read some of the early chapters it is one of the best crisis management books out there. What makes it stand out, in addition to being dead center in the middle of one of the biggest crises in American corporate history, is that Jon tells the story like a novel. All the characters, conflicts, and plot twists are there to make it a great read but in the process Jon pulls out the important lessons learned.

The participants on the call yesterday with us, including a participant from UK, had the benefit of Jon’s wisdom and observations as an insider during this event. Here are a few key lessons I gleaned from Jon’s presentation:

1) Trial lawyers will drive the news cycle. While the company(or companies in this case) are eager for the story to fall off the front pages, trial lawyers have become very adept at stretching out a story. They would leak key documents shortly before the nightly network newscasts with another supposed “bombshell” prompting Dan Rather and others to call for quick comment by Ford or Firestone with little time to research and prepare a response. The link between accuser and media is a happy marriage from their perspective because the coverage furthers the aims of both lawyers and media.

2) The anti-big and anti-corporate mentality means you start a crisis like this deep in a hole. It’s tough to try to protect reputation and credibility when the media and the public has an underlying perception that if you are big, powerful and for profit you are evil and ill-intentioned at the core.

3) The differences between Ford and Firestone made the situation worse. The crisis caused a bitter end to a business relationship that had lasted for over 100 years. It is very useful to see the vast differences between Ford’s approach to communication vs. Firestone’s. The fact that Jon as PR lead was at the table in critical meetings where no Firestone PR people were is just one indication of the management and cultural differences–differences that worked strongly to Ford’s advantage and Firestone’s disadvantage. This is one reason why PR leads should by this book and send it to their CEOs as Christmas presents.

4) The emergency of online networking. The year 2000 was before people were talking about social media, web 2.0 and all that. But this was one of the first events where blogs, activist web sites, and the viral nature of web communications starting playing a role. Now it has emerged as a driving role but the signs were there of what this could mean as others who different agendas and axes to grind against a major company networked together to pressure and seek more negative publicity.

5) Emergence from the depths. One of the most interesting parts of our discussion with Jon was how the company emerged from this event. While it cost Ford over $3 billion in direct costs, the very next year was a record sales year for the Ford Explorer. And now, Ford stands alone as emerging with strong hopes from the current economic crisis among the Big Three. One reason was the serendipitous introduction of the completely redone Explorer with many added features including enhanced safety. No doubt having the NHTSA exonerate the Explorer as not causing the rollover accidents also contributed. But I would have to say, having gotten to know Jon and understand his commitment to truth, honesty, transparency and credibility, and reflecting on his statement about how their legal team and PR team worked effectively together, I would also give more credit to Jon and the Ford management than perhaps he did or would.

Jon can be reached via his blog at Force for Good Communications. Do yourself a favor and get the book.