Bridgestone Breaks With Ford Through Online Letter

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. yesterday severed its 100-year-old relationship with Ford Motor Co. by publishing on the Internet the tire maker's letter to the automaker on the very day it was delivered.

The letter from John T. Lampe, Bridgestone's president/CEO and chairman, to Ford CEO Jacques Nasser was displayed on and on the Business Wire service for press releases.

Lampe told Ford of his company's decision yesterday morning at a meeting at Bridgestone/Firestone headquarters in Nashville, TN.

The online move is one of the very few instances of personal CEO-to-CEO communications being displayed so swiftly on the Internet to sway various constituencies — suppliers, partners, shareholders, the general public and employees — to the protagonist's side of the ring.

“I think it's a good stroke for Bridgestone,” said Connie Connors, CEO of technology public relations agency Connors Communications, New York. “I'd be curious to see how Ford reacts. My advice is that they don't wage a war online, in front of all of their customers and suppliers and partners.

“But this is an area where all marketing people have to come to face with,” Connors said. “You can't take it lightly, especially in situations of crisis.”

Ford's Explorer sports utility vehicle has been blamed for many deaths caused by tires fitted on the vehicle, and relations between the two companies have been strained ever since. Lampe's letter to Nasser blamed Ford for inaction.

“Our analysis suggests that there are significant issues with a substantial segment of Ford Explorers,” Lampe wrote in his May 21 letter. “We have made your staff aware of our concerns. They have steadfastly refused to acknowledge those issues.”

The letter, which said Bridgestone will honor existing contractual obligations, goes on to accuse Ford of not sharing information with the public about the vehicle or its tires.

“We believe you are attempting to divert scrutiny of your vehicle by casting doubt on the quality of Firestone tires,” Lampe said. “These tires are safe, and as we have said before, when we have a problem, we will acknowledge the problem and fix it. We expect you to do the same.”

But the public spat on the Internet is not very tasteful, according to Nancy Tamosaitis, senior vice president and executive director at PR firm GCI Group, New York.

“Well, I think it comes across as a little impersonal to me,” Tamosaitis said. “I'm a big fan of obviously using the Internet, but I think this monumental decision of a relationship that's been for a hundred years, I think that deserves a bit more in-person personal contact.

“Maybe this is the official, for-the-lawyers version,” she said, “but it comes across as impersonal for a 100-year relationship.”

Connors, by contrast, finds the online one-upmanship fair game.

“I don't think slamming people online is a good thing, but I think in terms of crisis, there are ways to communicate,” she said. “Let's see how Ford responds. What if they post [online]? It could get ugly.”

In a way, Bridgestone's action has paved the way for yet another use of the Internet as a marketing communications medium.

“The Internet is the great bulletin board of this century,” Connors said, “and there's perfect freedom to publish whatever you want on your site.”

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