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.