On Memorial Day weekend 2000, when local and national media outlets were seeking “back to school” stories and with the Firestone tire recall publicity firestorm burning bright, Honeywell found itself thrust into the national limelight when one of its units announced a safety recall of an antilock braking system involving school buses. The media attacked the story aggressively. Honeywell Corporate Communications’ crisis communications management expertise would be on display on a national stage for the next several days.
Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems (BCVS), a division of Honeywell, began receiving reports of a problem involving the manufacturer's EC-17 control unit (ECU) and anti-lock braking system used on commercial vehicles, including school buses and (trucks). After an aggressive investigation , BCVS determined that the defect -- caused by the Bendix ECU in combination with certain installation or equipment issues -- would generate an erratic false wheel speed signal resulting in temporary loss of braking performance at low speeds. Bendix voluntarily notified the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) on July 17, 2000.
On August 29, 2000, a major Bendix customer began a recall notification within its normal business channels involving 6,000 school buses with potential brake problems. On September 1, the recall story broke nationwide in The Washington Post.
The crisis communications program developed by Honeywell Communications to handle the recall of its Bendix EC-17-1030R anti-lock brake unit is worthy of a SABRE Award for several reasons:
- Despite a detailed plan that called for coordinated release of information between Bendix and its customers, a major Bendix customer unilaterally went public with the issue;
- The recall involved an anti-lock braking system installed on approximately 45,000 school busses across the country as well as thousands of safety forces vehicles (ambulances and fire trucks). The recall announcement took place just days before start of school across the nation;
- The recall announcement took place in a media, regulatory and public environment that was highly sensitive toward safety-related transportation recalls due to the Ford/Firestone recall, which was occurring simultaneously . In fact the Bendix announcement took place just three days prior to the start of the Ford/Firestone Congressional hearings.
As the summary results indicate, despite the previously mentioned unforeseen challenges, Honeywell’s Corporate Communications team successfully minimized the potential reputational impact of the recall on the Honeywell corporate brand. The effort was driven by a two-pronged strategy to 1) respond quickly across all mediums and provide two-way interactive communications mechanisms and 2) isolate media/public attention to the Bendix brand and end-users. As a result, the impact was negligible and the perception of the company in the eyes of the media, regulators and public was neutral to positive. These results are attributable to the speed and effectiveness of the communications plan that was developed and implemented by Honeywell Communications with support from its public relations agency, Public Relations Partners.
STRATEGIC APPROACH & EXECUTION
Honeywell Communications, working in conjunction with in-house staff communicators at its Bendix facility in Ohio and its agency, Public Relations Partners, quickly developed the recall communications plan in hours and rolled it out in four phases. The first phase involved the development of key messages to all external and internal audiences, an action timetable and the development and staffing of an on-site call center to handle both customer and media inquiries. The second phase included the assembly of all pertinent materials (customer letters, media talking points, company backgrounder, key company contacts list, etc.) into “recall play books.” These playbooks were distributed in a controlled manner to all key internal participants. The third phase involved the training of company personnel who would be talking with either the media or with customers as part of the Call Center staff.
The fourth phase was the actual recall announcement, which was triggered by the early release of information by a customer. Despite that, the plan went off without a hitch. The recall announcement was first disseminated to all employees via mandatory company meetings coordinated by the communications team. That same day, armed with their play books, members of the sales and marketing team began customer and vendor notifications via phone, letter and in some instances, personal visits to key customers. All key audiences, both external and internal, had the recall announcement within 24 hours.
The media analysis of the EC-17 Recall Announcement revealed several key findings.
First, the recall was viewed by the media as a “non-event.” A review of the 1,132 media reports tracked showed that the tone of the coverage was neutral to positive. This trend is reflected in a tracking report conducted by CARMA imMEDIAte™, a global media analysis service. CARMA assigns a favorability weight factor to the media coverage of an issue with 100 being highly favorable and 0 negative. CARMA’s tracking of the EC-17 issue over the first week of the recall showed Honeywell tracking with a rating of approximately 55, just over neutral and into the favorable range.
A second key finding was the media coverage appeared to have positively impacted the analysts’ view of the recall. In an analysts’ bulletin regarding Honeywell issued by Merrill Lynch on September 5, 2000 (only four days after the story broke in The Washington Post), the brokerage reported that the “Truck Brake Recall Is A Non-Event; Buy.” The report went on to say, “We consider this (the recall) a non-event for Honeywell International. We continue to recommend purchase of HON stock … ”
A third key finding was that media interest in the story, although extremely heavy within the first four to five days after the announcement, quickly tapered off. This finding is significant since media interest in transportation safety issues at the time was extremely high because of the start of the Ford/Firestone Congressional Hearings in Washington, D. By the Numbers:
The following is a graphic representation of recall media coverage:
1321 media reports generated; 257 total TV broadcasts; 160 stations nationwide; 11 national news networks; 788 newspaper articles†; 87 Internet reports; 124,957,406 combined television and newspaper impressions; 88,645,423 total print circulation; 36,311,983 total television viewership. (Internet figures not available)
All 25 major media markets* covered the brake recall.
* As defined by the major markets listing in Bacon's Media Directory.
† These numbers include an estimated 10 percent error factor due to duplicates.