Ford: Out of the Frying Pan
Last Thursday, the American Family Association (AFA) reached an agreement with The Ford Motor Company ending their boycott of the automaker's products. The faith-based organization launched their action last May to stop FoMoCo from supporting gay and lesbian groups. Specifically, the AFA demanded that Ford stop all contributions to homosexual social events (e.g. gay pride parades), end all donations to homosexual organizations and cease advertising in all gay-oriented media. Yesterday, Ford confirmed that Jaguar and Land Rover will pull their advertising from gay publications, but refused to discuss any other details of the AFA agreement. One thing is for sure: The Blue Oval caved, Big Style.
Ford's acquiescence to the AFA's religious agenda is a huge mistake. It's lit a fire under the large, wealthy and equally well-organized gay community. Gays and lesbians around the country are sure to respond to Ford's AFA accord with a boycott of their own. If Ford backs down from THAT pressure, the AFA will relaunch their boycott. By choosing a side in the contentious "homosexual lifestyle" issue, Ford is now smack dab in the middle of a Hatfield – McCoy-style conflict that it can't win, on any level, ever.
But the company's silence is its biggest blunder. It's one thing to cave to a pressure group; it's another to be seen to be doing so; and it's a third to do so without explanation. Remaining shtum on the AFA agreement violates one of the inviolable rules of corporate PR, and its corollary: if you can't defend it, don't do it; if you do it anyway, defend it anyway. When GM responded to reviewer Dan Neil's criticism by pulling its entire advertising budget from the LA Times– without public comment– the move made them appear arrogant, sinister, petty and vindictive. By refusing to discuss the AFA agreement, Ford has made itself appear cowardly, deceitful, insensitive and unresponsive.
While it's hard to imagine an acceptable justification for Ford's capitulation to the AFA's demands, it's not impossible. A weasel like "After consultation with a broad array of public groups, Ford has decided to realign its marketing efforts to appeal to a more mainstream customer base" might have dampened the outrage against FoMoCo's 'accomodation.' In any case, maintaining radio silence in these cybernetic times is a virtual impossibility. Hence Ford spokesman Mike Moran's eventual assertion (to the gay website Advocate.com) that the Blue Oval's withdrawl of financial support from the gay media was "strictly business."
Moran's statement violates the second inviolable rule of corporate PR: never appear greedy. Obviously, Ford is in business to make money. And that's a good thing. The pursuit of filthy lucre is one of humanity's greatest levelers, binding people of all races, religions, nationalities and "lifestyles" in the glorious sanctity of a commercial transaction. Moran's "strictly business" comment sucks the virtue right out of the process, implying that equality to all has nothing to do with Ford's commercial activities. With founder Henry Ford's vicious anti-Semitism in its past, and not a lot happening on the forecourt, Ford can ill-afford the perception that it puts money before morals.
Even staring down the barrel of a nationwide boycott– ESPECIALLY staring down the barrel of a nationwide boycott– Ford should have simply stated that it markets its products without fear or favor. As governments around the world have learned, it never pays to negotiate with terrorists. Ford's AFA appeasement shows pressure groups that the company is receptive to blackmail. At the very least, they will view the automaker as a soft target for free publicity. And we're not just talking about religious groups. What's to stop the National Rifle Association from boycotting Ford if the company advertises in newspapers that oppose their legislative stance?
Nothing. Just as Ford is free to spend its marketing dollars where it pleases, pressure groups are free to respond to those decisions as they see fit (as long as their protests are legal). Clearly the only way to avoid these skirmishes is to remain deaf to ALL extortionists. Ford should defend against attacks against its business practices by appealing to the consumers' belief in tolerance and fair play; realizing that bullies lose their power over the masses the moment they're seen as petty and vindictive. In other words, they should take the high road, outlast the bastards and work behind the scenes to cut them off at the knees. Instead, Ford is taking the low road, waving the white flag mid-battle and kissing ass behind closed doors.
Ford has screwed itself on this one, but good. It's completely blown the "golden 24" hours of damage limitation. Anything it says or does now will only add fuel to the PR pyre. Even so, Bill Ford should immediately reverse the company's pro-AFA stance. He should tell the world that Ford builds, markets and sells cars to anyone who can afford to buy them. If AFA members don't want to buy a Ford, so be it.
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