Ford's Problems Mounting

Thursday, October 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) — A critic of Ford Motor Co. recently remarked that the person in charge of the automaker's TV ads, which featured CEO Jacques Nasser talking about the Firestone tire recall, should be cast into a public relations version of hell.

To which Ford's chief spokesman, Jason Vines, quipped Wednesday: ``If this is not it, I'm going to need asbestos underwear on the way down.''

Vines was referring to the company's involvement with the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, most of which were installed on Ford Explorers.

Kidding aside, Ford found itself on the defensive again Wednesday after a judge ordered the automaker to recall 1.7 million cars and trucks in California for ignition problems.

While the tire recall and the California judge's ruling were unrelated, the unfortunate timing of the events puts considerable pressure on Ford to better explain itself to customers.

``Public relations, in this case, really needs to be used to help Ford explain that what they're doing is the right thing to do,'' said Anne Sceia Klein, a Philadelphia-based crisis management expert.

The California ruling was the latest development in a dispute dating to the mid-1980s over charges Ford knew a variety of vehicles had a flawed electrical part that caused engines to stall. While Ford recalled 1.1 million vehicles in 1987, it has maintained that other models were fine.

The judge ruled Ford hid evidence of problems with the ignitions from federal investigators. As with the tire recall, Ford says its own data showed no need for further action on its part.

``There's nothing to suggest our vehicles stalled more than anyone else's or our vehicles were involved in stalling-type accidents more than anyone else's,'' Ford spokesman Jim Cain said Wednesday.

Ford has been accused of covering up vehicle defects before, most infamously with the Ford Pinto. Twenty-seven people died during the 1970s in fuel tank fires in the Pinto, which Ford was eventually forced to recall.

The drawn-out nature of the ignition dispute — and a lack of reports of fatal accidents linked to the problem — has made it less of a headache for Ford than the tire recall or the Pinto problems.

Even the tire recall has yet to bring the kind of embarrassment the Pinto did; during that scandal, company memos surfaced comparing vehicle costs to the estimated value of a human life — $200,000. Ford eventually put the Pinto behind it by retiring the model name, but not before spending millions on lawsuits and losing many customers.

Before the tire recall, Nasser, Ford's chief executive, had been trying to improve the image of the world's second-largest automaker — for instance, by tying executive bonuses to surveys of customer satisfaction.

But since the recall was announced by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. in August, managing customer anger has been job one at Ford. The company has about 500 people dedicated to analyzing data and getting replacement tires to customers. The effort is run out of a ``war room'' just below the executive offices; Nasser holds twice-a-day meetings with his lieutenants to get updates on the recall.

Vines said Wednesday that the company had made significant progress in speeding the recall. Waiting lists for replacements are shrinking — so much so Ford has sent out more letters urging eligible customers to take part.

Vines also said media interest in the recall has dropped. At one time, Ford was getting about 100 calls from reporters before 10 a.m. every day.

Vines said Ford remains committed to being open and honest about its decisions while continuing to maintain it is not to blame for the tire problems, which are being investigated in connection with more than 100 traffic deaths.

Bridgestone/Firestone has said the Explorer's design might have played a role in some of the accidents, while Ford maintains the Explorer is safer than other sport utility vehicles.

Still, Klein, the crisis management expert, said to really improve its standing with customers, Ford must convince the public that it is taking the right steps and will continue to.

``If you haven't done right in the past, people will sit back and be skeptical,'' she said.


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