Ford South Africa has a PR nightmare on its hands, yet on the face of it, the company either does not care, is confused or is thinking that the issue of Ford Kuga SUVs bursting in flames will simply vanish into thin air. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to media reports, 43 Kugas have caught fire since December 2015, that is an awful lot of vehicles to have experienced a similar problem by any standard. So far, seven vehicles have burst into flames this year alone, that is just less than two weeks.
The fact that a fatality has been recorded, following the death of Reshall Jimmy, said to have died in December 2015 while on holiday in Wilderness, Western Cape, should be enough concern for the company to act. His family alleges he was unable to escape when the vehicle caught fire and could not escape from the burning Ford Kuga. What amazes is the tardiness that Ford SA has demonstrated towards this worsening brand damage, not only to the company itself but to the Ford Kuga.
By now one would have expected the company to recall the vehicles for a thorough check – at own cost – of every Ford Kuga that it has sold in South Africa. Full page advertisements taken out in the media to apologise and explain what steps the company is taking to deal with the matter would have also been useful, so would have been the CEO engaging with the media on the matter. By now, one would have expected the CEO to have issued a public statement and become the face of this crisis, rather than delegating reputation and crisis management to a spokesman who ultimately still needs permission from the same management on what to say to the media.
That there is a problem can no longer be denied – 43 vehicles bursting in flames is enough evidence. Whether it is an electrical or design fault is another matter, what matters most is what is Ford SA's response to its customers, the reason why it is in business. But the backhand treatment and seemingly indifferent response unfortunately portrays the company as arrogant, uncaring and only interested in protecting its image. The irony of this is the opposite is happening. The number of negative comments on social media, together with several media articles on the issue, have done nothing to protect the company's image.
Crisis communication and reputation management should in any company be the responsibility of the board through management. If Ford SA has a crisis communication plan, then evidently it is not effective neither helpful. The time has come for the company to face this issue head-on, show some human face and empathy, and above all, corporate responsibility to speedily investigate why its vehicles are catching fire, and offer lasting solutions.
One can imagine the concern and panic of owners of the Ford Kuga, as they do not know whether it is safe to continue driving the vehicle. These are the customers that need Ford to reassure, and to put their minds at rest. To use PR statements and innocuous responses to media inquiries won't cut it, neither will it mean we won't read or hear about more vehicles catching fire.
Ford SA owes its customers practical demonstration of the customer care that it claims to practice. Anything less will simply further erode brand equity and reputation and make it doubly difficult to even market other Ford models as customers won't want to experience what owners of the Ford Kuga vehicles are going through right now. The question is, where is the CEO of this company?