AKRON—Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires in response to a government probe and public safety concerns has led to what can be considered a public relations nightmare for the tire maker.
Nearly every day in August, the nation has witnessed enduring images of overturned Ford Explorers equipped with one of the recalled tire lines, photos and news stories of people lining up for replacement tires.
Though it's anyone's guess how the negative publicity will affect the company and its Firestone brand in the long term, the crisis now facing the tire maker is largely self-inflicted, said Patricia Whalen, assistant professor of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University.
Ms. Whalen, who also is acting director of Northwestern's public relations program, told Tire Business that BFS could have avoided much of the damage to its reputation and image by acting immediately after it recognized a growing problem with the tire lines.
Working in advance of scrutiny would have given BFS "lots of lead time" to issue a public notice to inflate tires to a higher pressure or issue a recall at a "calm pace and in an orderly fashion," Ms. Whalen said. Now, the ensuing reaction from the Aug. 9 recall has taken on a life of its own and is more difficult to manage, she said.
Ms. Whalen emphasized that lingering news coverage just adds to the damage in public trust.
William Sledzik, associate professor of public relations at Kent State University, agrees that BFS should have been prepared for public hysteria once the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began investigating complaints against Firestone tires in May.
Mr. Sledzik cited Johnson & Johnson's pulling of all Tylenol capsules in 1982—immediately after an incident of cyanide contamination—as the classic example of how a firm can weather a recall with its reputation intact. He acknowledged it's not as easy logistically to recall and replace tires, but "when people are dying, three months is too long" to wait.
In a life-and-death situation, "you must act quickly to regain your reputation, because people will not forgive you if you don't," he said.
Image and reputation are formed by what someone does rather than what they say, he explained, so it's critical that BFS is forthright with all the facts and explains everything it's doing to ensure public safety.
Although initially a phased-in recall seemed logical in light of tire supplies, he said, "you can throw logic out the window" when people's lives are at stake.
After the recall was announced, Ms. Whalen said BFS erred by sending out conflicting messages to consumers and dealers. She observed from news reports that initially only four states could receive immediate replacements. But mounting criticism caused BFS to urge all customers to either call its toll-free hotline or go to their nearest Firestone outlet.
"In crisis planning, you gather all your facts and get them out quickly, but get them out consistently," she said. "What you don't want to have is your dealers saying one thing, the company management saying another, and then Ford saying something different."
In her area of Evanston, Ill., the Chicago Tribune ran a large headline and story on its front page telling of Firestone dealers being "caught short as calls pour in."
"Dealers are a key constituency, and they needed to be on board early," Ms. Whalen said.
Ford Rowan, principal partner of Washington-based Rowan & Blewitt Inc., a public relations firm specializing in crisis management, said BFS has begun to do the right thing by replacing tires as quickly as possible at no charge to consumers.
Mr. Rowan has handled product-liability controversies for automotive-related firms, but has never done so for BFS.
He has seen customers become unforgiving towards a manufacturer after a product defect was discovered in their vehicles. While he considers BFS' problems manageable, Mr. Rowan said the firm still faces a difficult road ahead to win back customer loyalty to its Firestone tires.
"It's going to take (BFS) a long time to gain it back," he said. "Once the customer is dissatisfied, you don't get them back. If people think they're driving a defective product, you do not get them back. Almost never."