WASHINGTON (Nov. 1, 2000) — Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. erred egregiously in not speaking up for itself initially when the crisis over tread separations in ATX and Wilderness AT tires on Ford Explorers began.
Because of this, it allowed Ford Motor Co. to take the lead with its message that BFS alone is responsible for the problems, according to corporate and legal media experts participating in an Oct. 26 panel discussion at the headquarters of the Washington Legal Foundation.
"The (Firestone) brand is probably dead," said John Hellerman, senior media relations specialist with Levick Strategic Communications, a Chicago-based legal communications firm. "Bridgestone (Corp.) probably will end up selling Firestone to another company who will change the name...then, over time, the American people will forget who the new company used to be."
Barie Carmichael, vice president and executive director of corporate communications at Dow Corning Corp., said she wasn´t so sure she agreed with Hellerman about Firestone´s fate. "Firestone has got big-time heritage, and one of the largest tire distribution networks as well," she said.
But Mr. Hellerman and Ms. Carmichael agreed that public scrutiny is starting to turn toward other tire manufacturers, and those companies must prepare to deal with the scandal.
On the other hand, Catherine McCullough, research counsel for media relations at the Association for Trial Lawyers of America, insisted BFS and the tire industry deserve the trouble they´re in.
"The tire industry lobbied Congress to keep safety standards low, and that´s why we have tires that fall apart," Ms. McCullough said. "They have the technology to improve, but they didn´t do it."
The Ford-BFS situation is a prime example of an "oppositional crisis," such as that which overtook Dow Corning Corp.´s silicone-gel breast implants. That crisis began 10 years ago and is still ongoing, Ms. Carmichael said.
In an oppositional crisis, the controversy unwinds over the long term, with differing sides and the resolution "more a matter of finding common ground than one side winning and the other side losing," she said.
"They can´t keep tire gauges in stock these days," she added. "The public is becoming aware of those things called tires."
The industry needs to find a believable, neutral third party to convey the message of the complexity of tires to the public, Ms. Carmichael said.
In an oppositional crisis, it´s necessary for a company to organize immediately for the long term, including the formation of "a multifunctional team" to make decisions on the crisis and a separate group to manage the company.
Another important point, she explained, is not to let the opposition frame your position. "It´s a fatal flaw to get backed into saying what you´re against. Instead, say what you´re for."
Mr. Hellerman said BFS violated that point from the beginning.
"Bridgestone/Firestone´s head of public relations was formerly in the general counsel´s office, which unfortunately is probably why they kept quiet at first," he said. An attorney´s advice is to keep quiet, because what you say can be used against you, he added, whereas in a product safety crisis it is always better to be as open as possible to assuage the public´s unease.
"Firestone...has done almost everything wrong," Mr. Hellerman said. "Ford was doing commercials before Firestone even got off the ground. In an oppositional crisis, it is important not to let the opposition define the story, and Firestone really let that go."
The tire maker also erred by making one of its first public statements on the recall issue an apology. "The problem with this," he said, "is that when you apologize one day, and the next day there are new allegations, you get into a pattern of serial apologies, where you have to apologize each and every time. I would have waited until after the congressional testimony to apologize."
The Ford-Firestone issue gave Ms. McCullough an unusual opportunity to put the trial lawyers´ message out front. "In other cases, it´s a situation when reporters come to me after they already spoke to corporate PR," she said. And usually the message from corporate PR is that most lawsuits are frivolous, that class-actions should be curtailed, that lawyers keep most of the money while plaintiffs get almost nothing.
Actually, the average award for a product liability lawsuit is $40,000, and plaintiffs win only about half the time, she said. The U.S. legal system actually militates against frivolous lawsuits because they can take years to adjudicate and plaintiffs who lose get nothing.
"You have to prove some basic elements, and a lot of people don´t make it over that hurdle," she said. "People who like to sue—there´s something wrong with them. We´ve had more than 200 years of jurisprudence to weed these people out."