It was never going to be easy when Ford announced a plan to cease car manufacture in Australia after almost 100 years.
But the task was made even harder when the news was cloaked in corporate jargon and deliberate spin.
With 1,200 direct jobs to be axed, and up to 4,000 more in the component industry under threat, Ford unwisely headed its announcement: “Ford Accelerates Australian Business Transformation”
The tone-deaf statement opened by telling worried employees, angry politicians and a sceptical public that “Ford Motor Company is transforming its business operations in Australia to provide customers with even more new products, and improved sales and service, while creating a more efficient and profitable business structure.” The lay-offs were briefly mentioned, with a promise to “provide clarity about the closure process.” Then Ford got back to explaining their exciting transformation. “We’ll move through this transition and continue to be a vibrant and strong part of the Australian driving experience.” Oh Really?
It was hardly a surprise that when Ford CEO Bob Graziano appeared on national television, he got both barrels right between the eyes. The 7.30 Report’s Leigh Sales seemed to be speaking for a substantial constituency when she put it to him straight. “Mr Graziano. How stupid does Ford think Australians are, to try to spin your announcement like that?”
The Ford boss manfully struggled to divert the issue back to the company’s past glories, with scripted talking points about “going forward.” However the dogged interviewer wasn’t finished. “Today you’ve announced the end of manufacturing in this country,” she said. “1,200 people are going to lose their jobs, yet your press release is trying to spin it like its good news.” The hapless Mr Graziano made another valiant effort to defend the company “going forward,” but it was a slam-dunk PR disaster.
Issue communication demands – at the very least – candour and empathy, not MBA buzzwords. Ford chose instead corporate-speak about challenging conditions; market fragmentation; changing dynamics; future vision; and enhanced customer experience. Not a word of thanks to local customers for their loyalty and support; no admission that maybe the company’s strategy was at least partly at fault; and no mention at all of over one billion taxpayer dollars handed over to keep the Ford plants open. And, perhaps most importantly, not a syllable of understanding or sympathy for the long-serving employees who will lose their jobs.
Yet it didn’t have to be like that. Ford just needed to remember they were talking to very different audiences – the public, the workers, the politicians and the investors. Shareholders and the folks back at Head Office would have lapped up the messages about business transformation and enhanced profits. But the other audiences needed to hear some sympathetic explanation, some empathy and perhaps just a little humility.
This was always going to be a major public policy issue for Ford. After such a disastrous start, we can only hope their communication will improve . . . going forward.