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Book Review: Feeding Frenzy

An inside look at the Firestone Tire crisis at Ford Motor.

by on Jan.04, 2010

An unsavory look at how the media sausage is made.

This is a cautionary tale about how two old-line industrial companies were caught out in a global media crisis that badly tarnished the reputations of both. By the time that trial lawyers, politicians and the media moved on to other matters (prompted by the contested Bush presidential election in Florida that went all the way to the Supreme Court), Ford Motor Company and Firestone were shaken to their engineering roots and their business practices drastically altered — for a time, at least.

Feeding Frenzy-Trial lawyers, the media, politicians and corporate adversaries: Inside the Ford-Firestone crisis, by Jon Harmon, is a well-written first-hand account of the Firestone tire Recall and the Ford Explorer, which used a majority of the defective tires.

And, before you read further, be aware that Jon and I worked together at Ford on the crisis. It was the most challenging time of my life as a communicator, as a bureaucratic and opportunistic corporate culture was confronted with much faster moving and unethical adversaries, notably trial lawyers and their water carriers in the media. So beware of book reviews by friends of the author.

It is not that Jon needs a friend to review this book, though. It stands alone quite well as an inside view of the crisis, while serving as an entertaining platform for Jon’s strongly held, battle tested, beliefs on corporate crisis management. Read as such, it is worth the time. See Jon’s site by clicking here.

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The real human tragedy behind this crisis is that more than 370 people are dead, and countless others seriously injured.

Why?

The answer is distressingly simple, though the causes are complex and arguable:

  • The Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle of the period, like other sport utility vehicles then without electronic chassis controls, could roll over if driver control was lost.
  • Compounding this inherent design problem of this high center of gravity vehicle was a marketing success story. It was the best selling SUV ever. The Explorer had become tremendously popular, with two plants working overtime for years to keep up with demand. Millions of them were on the road, with hundreds of thousands added annually when the scandal came to widespread public attention. Even this might have been okay, if a third decisive factor had not appeared.
  • Ford had asked Firestone to supply a tire that looked like a “tough truck” tire with its blocky tread, but wanted it built for reasons of cost and comfort on a passenger tire carcass. As the tires aged, the tread separated from the tire because of design and manufacturing defects leaving an inflated shell. In effect, the driver was confronted with a yawing motion with the Explorer behaving as if it was suddenly on glare ice. Not all of the drivers or their passengers survived such incidents.

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