By Thom Fladung
During Monday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump once again made Ford Motor Co. the poster child for corporate flight from America.
“So Ford is leaving,” Trump said. “You see that, their small car division leaving. Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio. They’re all leaving. And we can’t allow it to happen anymore.”
It’s a theme and a target that Trump has hit continuously since last year. Monday night, though, was different.
Monday night, as the Jalopnik website and others reported, Ford fought back.
Ford used Twitter to announce – often – that no jobs would be lost. In fact, while Ford will build two of its small cars at the plant in Mexico, the hourly workers in Michigan who once built those vehicles will now be building pickups and SUVs – with no loss of jobs at the Michigan plant.
Indeed, the argument could be made that the Michigan workers are now better off building vehicles that Ford considers more valuable.
And on debate night, Ford displayed prominently on its Twitter feed that the company in the past five years has created 28,000 U.S. jobs and invested $12 billion in U.S. plants.
Ford’s mistake, though, was made months ago when the company fumbled a chance to practice fundamentally effective crisis communications by telling the truth, telling it first, telling it all and telling it fast.
Reporter Nick Bunkley of Automotive News captured it in a story on Sept. 14: “Instead of just being transparent and explaining that the shift will allow hourly workers in Michigan to have better job security by building more popular, profitable pickups and SUVs instead, Ford decided to leak its plan in drips and drabs starting in the summer of 2015. …Ford executives were inexplicably evasive about the subject every time it came up.”
It’s not hard to imagine why the Ford execs were nervous. Moving jobs out of America always is a sensitive subject – and this election season it’s ultra-sensitive.
But by turning away from transparency, when they had the opportunity to tell their story first and fully, Ford’s leaders handed Trump a stick to beat them with.
Any shock he eagerly swung away?
On Sept. 15, Ford went on the offensive in earnest, with CEO Mark Fields responding to Trump’s charges on CNN.
That, though, also became a missed opportunity. Automotive News Online Editor Philip Nussel outlined why in a column on Sept. 16. (Full disclosure: I worked with Nussel at the Detroit Free Press and remain friends with him.)
Fields missed a chance to answer a tough question still hanging out there: OK, so Ford is maintaining jobs in America but why are you creating jobs in Mexico?
Nussel provided this answer: “Ford can’t make small cars profitably in the U.S., and nobody else in the industry can, either. So given that we have a fiduciary responsibility to our many U.S. shareholders, we think it’s best to locate these operations in Mexico to maintain the product line’s profitability.”
And, Nussel pointed out another miss, suggesting Fields could have pointed out: “Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to remember that we actually moved a medium-duty truck assembly line last year away from Mexico to Avon Lake, Ohio, creating or preserving hundreds of Ohio jobs.”
None of this is to say that any of these facts would have blunted Trump’s attacks. He may well have ignored them. But the facts would have been out there for all the world – especially Ford’s key stakeholders – to see.
This has to be a particularly bitter experience for Ford, which had enjoyed the high road as the only U.S. automaker that didn’t file for bankruptcy or take a government bailout to survive the Great Recession.
That’s ancient history, though, in a world where your reputation is one tweet away from attack. And the best defense remains: Tell the truth, tell it first, tell it all and tell it fast.
Thom Fladung is a vice president at Hennes Communications and a 33-year veteran of newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press.