The Power of Public Opinion

Article excerpt

The Firestone tire separation tragedy is one of the greatest crisis communication breakdowns of our time. Under layers of problems including a lack of clear decision making and corporate denial and arrogance was a seriously misguided public relations effort.

Now 174 people are dead and more than 700 seriously injured in the United States alone, and Firestone is defending itself against a tidal wave of lawsuits on at least three continents. After years of hard-won rebuilding of Firestone's finances, the recall and related costs slashed parent Bridgestone's profits last year by 80 percent, while several auto manufacturers have stated publicly their intent to begin using other brands of tires in addition to Firestone. Yoichiro Kaizaki, Bridgestone's president, has signaled his intent to step down as a sign of responsibility for the incident.

To put it bluntly, a lack of communication at the highest levels of management and a blatant disregard for the power of public opinion could permanently scar and even ruin the Firestone brand. What triggered the avalanche of bad turns? At first glance, the culprit is a manufacturing problem. But dig a little deeper and a disturbing pattern of denial and communication breakdown is revealed.

Paper Trails

Company documents released to the media show that Firestone received more than fifteen hundred legal claims, many dating to at least 1997, for property damage, injuries and deaths resulting from failures among the 6.5 million tires that had to be recalled.

Yet in response to numerous inquiries from Ford and the general public beginning late in 1998, Firestone repeatedly gave the same answer that it had been giving plaintiffs' lawyers for years: some tires inevitably fail, and the usual cause is abuse by customers who do not inflate the tires properly or overload the vehicle.

Whether there was, in fact, anything wrong with the tires was no longer the issue after this information was released; a problem of this magnitude was a matter of public relations.

Bridgestone/Firestone had to bow to public and legislative pressure and undergo the recall, but what could have saved them was a willingness to fully address likely consumer concerns. They needed to promote a view that would come across as committed to the integrity of the product. Instead, Bob Wynant, Bridgestone/Firestone vice president of quality assurance, was quoted in news reports as saying, "We've got such a high volume of tires that looking for the root cause is like looking for a needle in a haystack."

This is exactly how not to engage in crisis management. Keeping a close tab on who says what to the press is key in the early stages of a crisis. A public front of denial, buckpassing and glib remarks have put Firestone's future in jeopardy.

This is not the first time Firestone tires have been subject to a massive recall, nor is it the first time the company has faced a public relations nightmare caused by bad communications. Firestone has not learned from its past mistakes.

On October 20, 1978, Firestone recalled ten million of its steel-belted radial 500 tires. Richard Riley, chairman of what was then known as Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., said at the time that the company agreed to a recall not because the tires were proved defective but because of negative publicity. "The thought that there is a defect has been implanted so strongly that we have to convince our customers that we are interested in their welfare," Riley said. "So I think the best solution is to get this behind us." This kind of cultivated compassion does not sit well with the public. Although a recall can cost a company a huge amount of money, a negative company stance can cost far more.

Even worse, Firestone's history of problems, which should have kept management on a keen watch, cropped up again in September 1999, two years before problems with the tires resurfaced in the media. …