Compassion: The missing link in the Ford Kuga PR circus

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In May last year I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Jeff Nemeth, Ford sub-Sahara Africa CEO. He came across as a reasonable man.

It is for this reason that I am astounded and certainly disappointed by how Ford has handled the fatal controversy surrounding their Kuga SUV.

Let’s recap. In December 2015 Reshall Jimmy died after his Ford Kuga burst into flames. From there began a sad tale of denials of responsibility, followed by another 40-odd cars catching fire, and further denials.

More than a year later, only after pressure from the media which led to the National Consumer Commission taking up the matter with Ford, did the later finally do the right thing. It recalled the more than 4500 models this week.

Late as it was, this would have been plausible. But it was spoiled by Jeff and his company taking a hard, mechanical and calculated position in the face of human tragedy.

Obviously careful not to implicate and open itself to legal action, Ford was still not prepared to accept that Reshall Jimmy’s death could have been as a result of the overheating of their cars.

This is understandable. We will need to wait for irrefutable evidence. That’s the law.

But in this case, Ford failed the first test of crisis management where there has been human casualties: compassion.

When I heard that Ford was finally going to address the media, I knew they were going to recall those troubled cars. But I still hoped, the theme of Jeff’s address would be that of compassion and attrition.

I hoped that Jeff would face the family of Jimmy and the other people who bought his cars and say: “I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for your trauma. I am sorry this happened to people who were driving our cars.”

Obviously Jeff and his executive deferred to their legal advisors who clearly told them that showing such compassion would be interpreted as admission of guilt and therefore open them up for lawsuits.

Nonsense. If Jeff and his team sought counsel from reputation experts – without excluding the lawyers – I am sure they would have told him that showing compassion and attrition is not admission of guilt.

A good advisor would have told Jeff to speak to the hearts of those affected and let the lawyers prepare their cars to defend the company against lawsuits.

Most importantly, a good reputation advisor would have told Jeff to make this move in December 2015 already, while instructing his experts to drop everything on their desk and prioritise the investigation on the Kuga.

But no. They took more than a year playing hide and seek. And when they finally came out, they prioritise their car and minimise human life to collateral damage.

At best Jeff was either badly advised. At worst, he ignored good counsel. He put his head in the sand, in the process, putting his ass in the air.

Jeff could have learnt from Barrack Obama, the president of Ford’s home country, the USA.

In October 2009, Barack Obama came face to face with the true cost of the war in Afghanistan, when he went to the Dover air force base as the remains of 18 US soldiers and drug enforcement agents were unloaded from a military aircraft and returned to US soil.

At a chapel on the base, the president met the families of the dead. He never gave a special. He gave them personal hugs. And all he said is: “I am sorry for your loss.”

[Follow me on twitter @ramsbythehorns]