December 13, 2005

Ford caught in public relations quagmire

By Poornima Gupta

DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co. is caught in an ideological divide between a Christian conservative group and gay rights advocates over its advertising plans, adding a public relations nightmare to the set of problems it needs to fix.

Ford said last week its Jaguar and Land Rover luxury brands will pull all advertising from gay publications after facing a boycott threat from the American Family Association, which has criticized the automaker for being gay-friendly.

Gay advocates are now pressuring the No. 2 U.S. automaker to reverse its decision and distance itself from AFA. Senior Ford executives met with the leadership of national gay and lesbian organizations on Monday in Washington, D.C.

"We have asked that Ford repudiate its relationship with this extremist group, reinstate its advertising of Jaguar and Land Rover and continue investing in organizations working for equality," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay rights organization, said in a statement after the meeting.

While Ford said the ads were being pulled as a result of cost cutting, the perception that Ford agreed to anti-gay demands from the AFA has drawn protests from gay groups across the United States.

Ford has made no commitment to review its decision to drop the ads.

The automaker needs to clearly communicate to consumers the reason behind the decision, said Judy Phair, president of Public Relations Society of America and PhairAdvantage Communications, a Washington, D.C.-area marketing consulting firm.

"They have gotten caught in the cross-fire of a cultural battle," Phair said. "It's about cars, it's not about lifestyle choices, that's what they have to keep emphasizing."

Ford -- which is working with Washington D.C.-based public relations firm Whiteck-Combs Communications to navigate the issue -- is not the first company to come under fire over its stance on homosexuals.

Other large companies including Microsoft Corp. and Walt Disney Co. have also found themselves trying to appease groups on both sides of the cultural divide.

"Part of it has to do with increased polarization," Phair said, adding that gay rights is "a real hot-button issue."

The controversy comes at a bad time for Ford, which is in the middle of planning a restructuring strategy to turn around its money-losing North American vehicle operations.

Ford, which has seen its U.S. sales fall in all but two of the last 18 months, needs both conservative Christians and gay consumers to buy its vehicles, Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, told Reuters.

"It's a typical Catch-22 situation," Cole said. "There is often no middle ground to work on and what Ford is trying to do is find that middle ground."

The AFA had called for a boycott of the automaker's vehicles in May, but suspended the move in June for six months after talks with Ford dealers, and now has ended it altogether.

"We value all people -- regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and cultural or physical differences," Ford Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Ford Jr. said in a statement released after the meeting with gay rights groups.

Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said on Tuesday the company had no further comment.

"It's one of those kinds of situations where there is no place to win," Cole said.