Thursday, August 31, 2000 Corporate Crisis Ads Starring CEOs Draw Chilly Reviews From Experts By ANNE MARIE CHAKER THE WALL STREET JOURNAL When their companies were in crisis, Lee A. Iacocca and Bill Gates both assumed starring roles as ad pitchmen in a bid to stem the tide of bad news at Chrysler and Microsoft. Now Masatoshi Ono of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., Jim Goodwin of UAL Corp. and Jacques Nasser of Ford Motor Co. are becoming the public face of their companies, all of which are dealing with major problems involving recalls and canceled flights. But their message of corporate integrity and concern isn't winning raves from marketing veterans. More than a week after Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires, most of which are mounted on Ford Explorers, the company bought full-page ads in newspapers across the country that featured John Lampe, executive vice president of the Japanese company's U.S. unit. The ads assured readers that the tire maker is "committed to your safety." Five days later, similar ads featured Mr. Ono, chief executive of Bridgestone/Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp. The ads aren't being produced by Grey Worldwide, the company's regular ad agency. And that might be smart on Grey's part: Some industry observers think the ads aren't very effective. "If you have the right person and right message in a crisis, sometimes you need the CEO," says Alan Siegel, CEO of brand consultants Siegelgale. "But if the CEO is stiff and formal and hard to relate to, and the message isn't a powerful message, then it's a waste of time." The Firestone efforts, he says, are "self-serving and predictable." In one print ad, Mr. Ono addresses a "Dear Firestone Customer" in what looks like a form letter. Mr. Ono, whose somber photograph sits on the upper left hand corner of the page, outlines steps the company is taking to make its spring goal for completion of the recall of tires. (Firestone is sticking with Mr. Lampe in its television ad.) The approach is "disappointing," says Robert Kahn, executive director, world-wide marketing at FutureBrand, Interpublic Group's global-branding consulting firm. Most people have never heard of Mr. Ono, Mr. Kahn says. "If there was anything they could have done to reach people in a more emotional way, it would have had more credibility as opposed to something that looked like a corporate memo." Bridgestone/Firestone officials disagree, insisting that a serious topic should be treated seriously in the ad copy. "This matter is of great importance to everyone in the company, including senior management," says spokesman Pete Abel. "It's important for the senior members to visibly communicate the facts of the recall." After Ford aired its first commercial featuring Mr. Nasser during a Monday night preseason football game on Aug. 21, the auto maker used market research firm Woelfel Research of Vienna, Va., to gauge viewer reaction. Carolyn Brown, a Ford spokeswoman, says about 58% of those surveyed said their confidence in Ford increased after they had "Jacques's personal guarantee." A week later, a new 90-second ad, also starring Mr. Nasser, aired during the Fox network's "Ally McBeal" show and the "Battle at Bighorn" golf match between Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia on ABC. With his trademark Australian accent, Mr. Nasser explains that "over one million tires have been replaced" and again gives his "personal guarantee that no one at Ford will rest until every recalled tire is replaced." He adds: "In fact, my family has three Explorers." Some critics feel Mr. Nasser's delivery is a bit too chilly. Peter Flatow, president of CoKnowledge, a brand consulting firm in Southport, Conn., says Mr. Nasser's accent is off-putting because Ford is widely viewed as an American icon. He questions the location of the set: Mr. Nasser standing in the company's lobby. "He couldn't even get out of his office into a dealership?" Mr. Flatow asks. Ford's answer to critics is that Mr. Nasser didn't have a "voice coach" to remove any accent. "Nobody ever gave any thought to making him sound less Australian," Ms. Brown says. "It would have been a bit disingenuous for him to sound any different." The decision to shoot the ad in front of a wall at corporate headquarters was intended to convey that "this is an issue that is in front of the company in its entirety." The problems at United Airlines are less dramatic although certainly vexing for its customers. The airline has been roasted for numerous flight cancellations, an outpouring that finally prompted the company to respond via public mea culpas. The print campaign, which has run in 13 national and metropolitan newspapers since Aug. 16, shows an airport departure monitor with a majority of the flights marked as delayed or canceled. "This isn't getting us where we want to go," says Mr. Goodwin, the airline's chairman and CEO, in the ad. Since Aug. 24, United also has aired TV commercials in which Mr. Goodwin, striding an airplane cabin in his shirt sleeves, apologizes for the thousands of flight cancellations that have progressively affected travelers over the past several months. Instead of getting into details of the labor strife that has led to the problems, the ads promise United's performance will improve. "To deal with the problem, we're reducing our flight schedule, so we don't make promises we can't keep," Mr. Goodwin says. The campaign will continue until Sept. 10. Does it matter that not too many United customers know who Mr. Goodwin is? United says no. "I don't think the CEO needs to be a well-known figure to get your message out. We made a decision to do this because we thought it was important to make a commitment. Who better to make that commitment than our chairman and chief executive officer?" says Matthew Triaca, a company spokesman. Allen Adamson, managing director of Young & Rubicam's Landor Associates, describes the campaign as effective. In this case, the CEO was "credible in delivering the we've-messed-up message, we know it, and we're going to fix it," he says. But others wonder what took the company so long. "My feeling is that this ad could have aired months ago," says Sanjay Dhar, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago. "At this point, I want to hear that there's a breakthrough in the agreements" with unhappy pilots and mechanics.