The Tire Fiasco: Just a Bump in the Road for Ford?

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Ford CEO Jacques Nasser has been doing his part — appearing in TV spots and signing newspaper ads in an attempt to quell public anxiety about the company's popular Explorer SUV and, more particularly, its disintegration-prone Firestone tires. But as he and other Ford officials appear in Washington for grilling by senators and congressmen, it's becoming clear that his efforts may be too little, too late. Perhaps hindered by the difficulties of working with another company, Ford has failed to practice the business-school paradigm established by pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson when it dealt with the '80s Tylenol scare.

Instead, Ford has spent more than two weeks twisting in the wind as each company blames the other and investigators gather more evidence. Now they are both facing governmental music, appearing before a Senate and House subcommittees Wednesday to defend their reported lack of action preceding the massive tire recall.

It won't be easy for Nasser to convince anyone the company was operating in the dark — documents have reportedly surfaced pinning blame on both Firestone and Ford for the continued sale of the dangerous tires; and Wednesday's Washington Post alleges both companies were aware of the tires' potential risks after a series of incidents in Middle East markets.

In his TV ads, Nasser claims Ford handled the recall in a responsible and timely manner. Not everyone agrees: Consumer safety advocates are primed for blood, and early indications are that Ford is in just as precarious a position as Firestone when it comes to the double sword of political scrutiny and public opinion. Firestone's erstwhile public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard, apparently sees danger ahead; they dropped Firestone from their client list Tuesday. Meanwhile, the tire giant is calling in a crisis-management company in an attempt to douse their considerable woes.

Those Firestone firemen will invitably point to the Johnson & Johnson case. In 1982, when eight people were poisoned by tainted Tylenol capsules in Chicago, the drug company did the unthinkable: They pulled every single bottle of their product off the shelves. The exact timetable of the recall is still a matter of debate, but even rival p.r. companies admit that Johnson & Johnson's swift and unequivocal action saved the Tylenol brand — and may have even helped the drug company's reputation.

It's too late now for Ford to make such a sweeping gesture; it's also, of course, a different case — Johnson & Johnson was the victim of a cruel poisoner while Ford and Firestone appear to have a disaster of their own making. At this point, all that is left for Ford is to maneuver as gracefully as possible through the minefield of congressional hearings and media accusations, take responsibility for any mistakes and missteps — and fervently pray that consumers are willing to forgive and forget.