- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Four major companies, suffering mishaps from a tire recall to labor woes, are buying thousands of dollars worth of advertising to regain their customers' loyalty.

United Airlines, Verizon Communications, Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone-Firestone have hit the television and radio airwaves and pleaded through paid newspaper advertisements to try to redeem themselves, boost customer confidence and win back customers.

While apology ads are nothing new, they are only part of a public relations strategy a company needs to smooth over relations with customers, public relations and advertising officials say.

"Saying you're sorry means nothing unless you're backing it up by action," said Kent Jarrell, senior vice president of litigation at Apco Associates, a public-affairs firm in Washington. These ads "can be very effective only if they are implemented correctly and the right words are used."

United's parent company, UAL Corp. plagued by canceled flights and bad service has run full-page ads in national newspapers and begun showing a 30-second television spot featuring Chairman James E. Goodwin. The television ads are directed at the thousands of United travelers whose plans this summer were disrupted by delays and 23,000 canceled flights.

"If you are one of them, I want to apologize personally on behalf of United," Mr. Goodwin says. He also says the airline is "reducing its flight schedule so we don't make promises we can't keep."

Mr. Jarrell, a frequent traveler on United, said he will need to "notice the difference or that apology becomes empty."

Fortunately for United, the company reached a tentative contract agreement over the weekend with its pilots many of whom had refused to work overtime since April and service already has improved.

Advertising executives say putting a face behind the apology means much more to consumers than just a faceless entity issuing it.

In a 90-second television spot, Ford President Jacques Nasser at the company's Dearborn, Mich., tire-operation center tells consumers that Ford has commitments from other tire makers to speed up the replacement of the 6.5 million at-risk Firestone tires that were voluntarily recalled. Ford is a major Bridgestone-Firestone customer and its Ford Explorer uses the recalled tires.

The commercial also was designed to support Ford's reputation for building what it calls one of the safest sport utility vehicles on the road.

"People want to know someone is responsible," said Torie Clarke, general manager at Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm in the District of Columbia. "Consumers aren't dumb. They'll very quickly realize if the company means [the apology] or not."

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, whose subcommittee will hold hearings next week on the recall, is "miffed" at Mr. Nasser who said he is too busy managing the recall to testify.

"A lot of people find it curious that Mr. Nasser has time to cut TV commercials but can't find time to testify before Congress," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Mr. Tauzin.

Companies are willing to spend the cash to redeem themselves in the same media that reported the negative stories.

"Corporations have learned the lesson that using their paid media to tell their story assures them that their story will be told in a certain way," said David Blum, vice president at Baltimore-based Eisner Communications.

These companies essentially are "buying their response" to the negative media they have attracted, said Tina Bagapor-O'Harrow, president of the Ad Store.

"They have to come out with a position, and it's a great way to get their message out," Mrs. Bagapor-O'Harrow said.

Verizon Communications' most recent ad informs customers that the telecommunications company has reached a settlement with its workers, who were on strike for 18 days.

The company is apologizing for any inconvenience throughout the ordeal and says it is focused on providing the best service for its customers. By the end of the strike, the company faced a backlog of 63,000 repair orders and 200,000 new-service installations.

Public apologies are nothing new. Americans have seen plenty from President Clinton apologizing on national television during prime time for the Monica Lewinsky affair to Johnson & Johnson's apology for its tampered Tylenol bottles in 1982.

But apologies in times of crisis are just words if they are not backed up by action.

Johnson & Johnson immediately pulled Tylenol from stores, apologized and created ways to eliminate future problems with new tamper-proof bottles. The company's reputation stayed intact.

Bridgestone-Firestone may not be so lucky. The company, which recalled 6.5 million tires earlier this month, waited too long to apologize, Mr. Jarrell said. Now the company is faced with more negative press as Congress begins investigating it and officials admit tires in Venezuela were mislabeled.

"Their apology isn't specific enough," he said.

• Julie Hyman contributed to this report.

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