Does Ford have a communications problem?

Ford CEO Mark Fields shows off lidar-maker Velodyne's Puck sensor in January 2016 at CES in Las Vegas.
UPDATED: 5/18/17 9:20 am ET

From a PR standpoint, nobody this side of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has had a worse week than Ford Motor Co.

Last Thursday, disgruntled shareholders complained about a stock price that’s fallen nearly 40 percent in less than three years. Days before that, Ford’s board of directors reportedly grilled CEO Mark Fields about his strategy for the company, specifically regarding pricey bets on autonomous and electric car development.

And, Monday night, The Wall Street Journal reported the automaker is set to slash about 20,000 white-collar workers around the globe.

The company, in response to the Journal report, said it has "not announced any new people efficiency actions, nor do we comment on speculation.”

What exactly are “people efficiency actions?” Who knows?

It sounds more like Ford plans to distribute staplers that work rather than pink slips. But maybe that’s the issue; the statement is too cute by half and makes the company look silly.

Less than 48 hours after the Journal report, Ford disclosed a “people efficiency action,” although it was much less drastic than what was originally reported: It’s cutting 1,400 white-collar workers in North America and Asia.

With the hailstorm of negative news pelting the Glass House these days, you’d think Ford was once again ready to hock the Blue Oval to keep the lights on. Instead, it’s doing quite well -- on track to make about $9 billion before taxes amid a U.S. sales market that’s leveling off at near-record numbers. The chasm between the perception and reality around Ford is growing exponentially, and it’s a direct result of a poor communications strategy that has so far failed to resonate inside and outside the company.

Analysts said as much this week.

'Perception lead'

Brian Johnson of Barclays wrote in a Tuesday investor note that Ford’s crosstown rival General Motors has had a “perception lead” in the autonomous and mobility space thanks to “splashy announcements” about Lyft and Cruise Automation.

Meanwhile, Ford has “a solid, workman-like AV/EV strategy” that Johnson deemed “underappreciated.” It includes investments in a number of software firms, 13 new electrified vehicles, a ride-sharing shuttle service, and continuous tests of a robot car program that’s decades in the making.

Everything Fields has done with driverless cars and new mobility services allows Ford to compete with automakers and tech firms alike, and carve out a profitable niche in whatever the auto industry of the next decade will look like. It can all be defended.

Clear view?

But the board of directors -- at least until last week -- didn’t seem to get it. And if the highest level of decision-makers within the company can’t see a clear strategy, you can bet the general public’s view is even less clear.

Every publicly-held company has a responsibility to effectively communicate its strategy to its customers, its shareholders and the public through the media. Yet Ford’s long-despised ‘drip-drip-drip’ approach to news-making is outdated and ineffective. For example, the company has only announced seven of its 13 electrified vehicles, has released scant details about its fully autonomous vehicle due out in four years, and hasn’t given any definitive timetable to making money off its numerous mobility investments -- at least publicly.

Guess what? If you leave the public guessing now, at some point they’ll stop waiting for you to drip out more and simply move on.

Ford could look to Fields’ predecessor for some guidance.

“One of Alan Mulally's greatest skills was his consistent communication of the goals and the progress made in a strikingly simple way that inspired the entire organization from Board down to factory line worker,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote in an investor note Tuesday. “The One Ford plan was an elegant and powerful blueprint that became the mantra of the firm's reinvention from the last crisis.

“There are important lessons here.”

The big question at Ford is this: Does the company’s top management remember these lessons?

You can reach Michael Martinez at mdmartinez@crain.com -- Follow Michael on Twitter: @MikeMartinez_AN

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