In 2006 that great American* success story Ford Motor Company teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.
The situation was so bleak that Ford mortgaged all of its assets – including the famed blue oval mark — to raise $23.4 billion cash to finance product development during restructuring through 2009.
The company’s relatively new CEO, Alan Mulally, and top communications executives recognized that the company needed to think creatively about how to improve its communications infrastructure to reach audiences outside of their direct sphere — the automotive world — and into communities across the country.
That year, the company undertook a pilot grassroots marketing and public relations program in Texas and California to test whether they could more effectively deliver corporate and local messaging to drive purchase consideration and offset changing perceptions about the Ford brand as an auto manufacturer, and as a neighbor.
Their focus was twofold. First, national messages from Detroit needed to be packaged for local consumption. Second, local dealer and community stories falling below the national communications radar needed to be told.
Working in tandem with a leading Washington, DC-based communications firm, we took on the Texas effort.
This program was atypical for us; up to that point our programs usually had a legislative objective of some kind. But this program was more of what I like to call grassroots marketing and public relations — we worked to expand Ford’s reach into Texas communities, monitor developments within the automotive industry, build a coalition of “Key Influential” opinion leaders in the state, engage the Ford family of dealers, and mine opportunities to generate positive exposure in the media and among the public.
Part of our charge was an integration of commnications; i.e. regular collaboration with Ford employees across departments, ranging from Communications, to Sales and Marketing, to Government and Community Affairs.
Ultimately, we did get involved with the Congressional federal bridge loan debate in 2009 and rallied Ford stakeholders to influence Texas members of Congress in support of that legislation, which is credited with allowing GM to turn around (note: ironically, Ford didn’t take any federal stimulus money and probably gained more positive public relations from that decision than most others combined).
The work building a coalition of supporters up to that point was critical to our success.
What began as a small grassroots programs in 2006 ultimately grew into a national campaign in full partnership with Ford. By 2009, a return to profitability was in sight. Today, its products are considered innovative (see, the Ford Focus electric vehicle) and on par in quality with all other automakers.
And, more and more organizations are recognizing the value of creative thinking when it comes to corporate communications.
The grassroots infrastructure promoted seamless collaboration between the company and its many departments, outside agencies, dealers and other stakeholders nationwide, put the company on a path to profitability, and invigorated the great Ford blue oval.
* Ford is in fact the largest family-controlled company in the world