The tire industry's image has been damaged in the past couple of years-primarily by the 2000 Ford Motor Co./Firestone tire recall-and now the major players need to work together to alter and improve public perception.
Daron Gifford of Covisint Consulting discussed this issue during a presentation at the International Tire Exhibition and Conference, Sept. 10-12 in Akron.
The tire industry-viewed as ``big business''-showed its vulnerability during the events emanating from the recall, Mr. Gifford said. The companies involved had to handle the recall issue-linked to injuries and deaths-sensitively yet had to do so under the microscope of media and congressional scrutiny.
The recall and the events emanating from it impacted a large number of people, each having a different perspective and relationship with the tire industry, he said. To help improve the industry perception with the groups involved, tire firms need to understand those people's needs, wants and concerns, then develop plans accordingly.
For example, in the case of families and individuals affected by tire-related accidents, Mr. Gifford said compassion should be shown to them by companies, while at the same time those firms need to protect their legal position.
Dealing with people touched by tragedy is the toughest position to manage, and the tire company is perceived to be the bad guy, guilty or not, he said. An example of neutralizing these feelings would be when then-Ford chief Jacques Nasser apologized publicly to a quadriplegic accident victim, Mr. Gifford said.
Companies also should try to settle or resolve litigation quickly. Putting it behind and moving on is the best course, he said.
The residual effects of recall-related events also affect employees. They can feel wronged by negative publicity and realize their own jobs may be in jeopardy as well, Mr. Gifford said.
When employees at Bridgestone/Firestone's Decatur, Ill., tire plant, for example, were criticized for producing many of the recalled tires, they in turn pointed to weak management and lack of responsiveness to problems as a cause.
These types of battles among management, employees and unions should be prevented, Mr. Gifford said. Firms should pay attention to employee relations and treat their workers as valued assets, he said.
Tire firms also need to work actively with political leaders and regulatory agencies, Mr. Gifford said. The industry-not just Bridgestone/Firestone-took a tremendous hit during congressional hearings, and the timing with upcoming elections and publicity-hungry Washington officials made the situation worse.
Tire company and industry officials need to maintain relationships with legislators even during non-crisis times, Mr. Gifford said. Only then will they be able to influence any actions stemming from recalls. The concept of ``battling city hall'' won't work, he said.
As for handling the media, firms should have a comprehensive plan in place before a crisis situation develops. In the Firestone case, the media took control of communications to the public, and reporters conducted their own analyses of the situation based on limited data, he said.
Therefore, the tire industry and its companies need to manage the media ``fast'' in times of crisis and develop an approach that presents a more positive light on tires, he said.
Consumers also were severely influenced by recalls, which brought to the public's attention the importance of tires in safe driving. Customers have become more sensitive to defects and brand name awareness when buying tires, and tire care and safety are much-discussed topics, Mr. Gifford said.
However, companies need to be wary of the negative image the public can develop because they now believe tires potentially can endanger their safety in an automobile. Mr. Gifford believes the tire industry needs a concerted effort to rebuild its reputation proactively, especially when negative attention pops up every time there is a safety-related recall or court case.
The industry should emphasize ``trust'' by stressing items such as ethical behavior, workplace satisfaction, financial viability, customer focus and product quality, he said.
An effort like this-buoyed by company cooperation, not a common sight in the tire industry-would be costly, Mr. Gifford acknowledged, but would pale in comparison to battling individual incidents in the future.