NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Ford Motor Co. is coming out on top in its battle with tiremaker Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., according to a survey of top public relations executives.|
The Council of Public Relations Firms, a trade group representing 130 of the nation's largest PR companies, surveyed 87 top executives of its member firms and found that two-thirds of those questioned disagreed with Bridgestone/Firestone's decision to stop selling tires to Ford on the eve of Ford's announcement of a broader recall of Firestone tires.
Almost the same percentage believe that Ford was correct to recall 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires, more than tripling the tires affected by last year's recall.
Bridgestone/Firestone CEO made a mistake when the tiremaker announced it no longer would sell to Ford, according to a survey of PR executives.
Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John Lampe made the surprise announcement May 21 that the tiremaker would no longer sell tires to Ford. Lampe said at that time that the world's No. 2 automaker, and one of Bridgestone/Firestone's major customers, was ignoring safety design problems with its Ford Explorer and unfairly trying to shift attention and blame to the Firestone tires.
Ford executives the next day announced a $3 billion recall of Firestone tires, saying that highway data and controlled tests suggested that the tires were more prone to tread separations than other tires on the road.
Since the split between the two companies, Bridgestone/Firestone has been one of the harshest critics of Ford's safety record, calling for a government investigation of the safety of the Ford Explorer, the nation's best-selling sport/utility vehicle, which has been involved in most of the fatal accidents involving recalled Firestone tires. But the PR executives said the tiremaker's actions aren't helping it, even if it is hurting Ford.
"They were able to damage Ford, but did nothing to restore confidence in their own products," the trade group quoted one of the survey respondents as saying.
"It makes Firestone look churlish, vindictive and defensive," another respondent said.
But the tiremaker did have its defenders among those surveyed.
"Knowing that Ford was going to launch a massive recall of their tires, Firestone had to do something dramatic to avoid having the final nail put in their reputation," one of the respondents said.
The survey also asked what steps the PR professionals thought Firestone should take. It found 62 percent believed the tiremaker should providing clear details of manufacturing improvements, as well as support from independent safety experts and agencies, moves that are somewhat similar to steps taken thus far.
The second choice, among 18 percent of those surveyed, called for Japanese tiremaker Bridgestone Corp., which owns Bridgestone/Firestone, to drop the Firestone brand name. The third choice, with 6 percent of those surveyed, was to hire a spokesman with greater credibility, while 5 percent said it should sue Ford for damage to its reputation.
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The PR professionals also questioned Ford's motive for the recall, even while endorsing it. Asked about the reason for the recall, 62 percent said it was an attempt to limit responsibility in the Explorer accidents by bolstering its argument that the car is safe and that defective Firestone tires were at fault, while 35 percent termed it a genuine commitment to safety. The other 3 percent said Ford was motivated by both reasons.
The trade group said that neither side is likely to "win" the dispute in terms of public relations. One of the respondents said that Ford had a natural advantage going into the dispute, though.
"Nobody wins in a war," the group quotes one of the respondents as saying. "It's important to point out that people's loyalty to their car is far greater than to the brand of tire they have on that car. Ford, not Firestone is in the driver's seat."
Spokesmen for Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were not immediately available for comment on the survey.