Rollovers, Recalls, and Rhetoric: Corporate Framing of the Ford/Firestone Controversy

Gary R. Webb, Oklahoma State University
Thomas E. Shriver, Oklahoma State University

In early 2000 media reports surfaced of motorists dying in sport utility vehicle-related (SUV) crashes. Ultimately, hundreds of deaths were attributed to rollovers involving Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires. Under intense scrutiny from the public and a highly publicized investigation by the government, both corporations launched massive public relations campaigns to salvage their tarnished organizational images. This research examines the rhetorical strategies employed by both organizations as they responded to widespread allegations of misconduct, attempted to frame the tragic and scandalous events in self-serving terms, and ultimately denied responsibility for the deaths.

While criminologists have begun to pay more attention to the criminal and deviant acts of powerful actors such as governments and corporations, the field remains biased toward describing and explaining the actions of individuals. Even those studies that focus on organizations largely ignore human agency, often attributing crimes of the powerful to reified notions of organizational structure and culture. Researchers are often quick to study the stigma management strategies and "techniques of neutralization" of individuals but they have been less interested in understanding the efforts of corporate actors to positively spin disastrous events. This research overcomes both of those biases by examining the tactics that corporate actors actively employ to manage the stigma of deviance claims leveled against them.

To examine the rhetorical stragegies of Ford and Firestone in the wake of the rollover controversy, we collected data from a variety of sources, including company press releases and internal documents, congressional hearings and regulatory agency reports, and national newspapers. Utilizing a grounded theory approach to data analysis, we identified five techniques both corporations used to frame what happened: shifting blame, promises of cooperation, appeals to science and research, revising safety history, and reinterpreting the profit-safety contradiction.

This research has several important implications. First, our interpretation of the Ford/Firestone controversy highlights the critical role of human agency in corporate deviance, which sets it apart from past studies of the phenomenon that have been structurally and culturally deterministic. Additionally, this study has implications for state theories, revealing the circumstances under which two industrial giants, historically bound together, became pitted against each other. Finally, this research contributes to our understanding of regulatory dynamics, illustrating how industrial elites manage to "capture" and ward off regulators when things go wrong.

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Updated 05/20/2006