By KATHRYN KRANHOLD
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- Tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has hired the
Washington office of public-relations firm Ketchum to help it restore its
tattered image and boost its standing here in the nation's capital, where
the company is under attack.
Bridgestone/Firestone, a unit of Japan's
Bridgestone Corp., last month launched a recall
of 6.5 million Firestone tires that have been
implicated in 88 U.S. traffic deaths. Most of the
tires were installed on Ford Motor Co.'s popular
Explorer sport-utility vehicle and other Ford light trucks.
Meanwhile, Christine Karbowiak, Firestone's vice president of public
relations, confirmed that former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Howard
Baker's law firm, Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell, had recused
itself in representing Bridgestone/Firestone for the time being. Ms.
Karbowiak said the law firm had a conflict of interest because it had also
done work for Ford. Firestone, based in Nashville, Tenn., had relied on
counsel from both Baker Donelson's offices here and in Nashville. The
law firm was unavailable for comment.
Separately, Bridgestone President Yoichiro Kaizaki, in his first comments
on the tire crisis, said at a Tokyo news conference that he wished the
Japanese parent had exercised more control over its U.S. operations.
"We should have applied our standards to things like technology and
quality assurance," Mr. Kaizaki said. Bridgestone plans to send a team
of advisers on production, quality control and tire development to its
U.S. operation by the end of the year, he added.
Mark Schannon, a partner with Ketchum, a unit of New York-based
Omnicom Group Inc., said the firm agreed to work with Firestone after
several frank discussions over the direction of Firestone's public
relations. Mr. Schannon, who is director of the agency's Washington,
office, added, "I'm not saying everything is going to be smooth."
Nevertheless, Mr. Schannon is confident Firestone is willing to make
changes. "I really believe Firestone will do what it says it's going to do.
It's determined to be more responsive, to move more quickly, to open
up the process," he said. Still, he cautioned: "It's a very large company.
I think it's not going to happen overnight."
Ketchum has handled crises for FedEx Corp. and Wendy's International
Inc., among others. FedEx's problems involved a plane crash, while
Wendy's hired Ketchum in the aftermath of a restaurant shooting.
Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive Masatoshi Ono acknowledged in a
statement that the company had been slow to respond to public
concerns. "We underestimated the intensity of the situation, and that
we have been too focused on internal details," he said. "As a result,
there is a high degree of concern about our motives and behavior. We
are determined to change all that."
During last week's Congressional hearings, Mr. Ono announced that the
company would hire an outside expert to investigate the company's tire
problems. "We will actively seek to develop an open, transparent review
process so that people can have confidence that the process was
honest," he added Monday.
Bridgestone/Firestone parted ways with its former agency,
Fleishman-Hillard, also an Omnicom unit, over the Labor Day weekend. A
Fleishman spokesman said the agency resigned because it felt it could
"no longer be of service to Firestone." Individuals familiar with the
matter say Fleishman executives were frustrated partly by Firestone's
slow response to its tire failures.
Ms. Karbowiak, the Firestone spokeswoman, said the company talked to
several agencies before hiring Ketchum to work on the company's
overall public-relations strategy with the tire recall as its first priority.
"Ketchum matched our personality, our overall business, the best. They
also have a very strong presence in Washington, which is very
important to us," she said.
-- Todd Zaun in Tokyo contributed to this article.