Public relations plans and reality

Today for me is the anniversary of a day I’ll never forget: Jan. 28, 1986. It was the day that The BFGoodrich Company announced it was exiting the tire business, merging its tire operations with Uniroyal’s to form the Uniroyal-Goodrich Tire Company.

Jan. 28, 1986, was also the day when the space shuttle Challenger exploded almost immediately after liftoff, killing the entire crew, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

Certainly there is no relationship between the two in terms of importance. The space shuttle disaster was a tragedy that touched the lives of almost everyone in this country at the time. Those were the days when the launch of a space shuttle was a big deal – and televised live. And the explosion and the loss of the crew put into question the future of America’s space program.

Still, I remember the events of that day very well. We had planned the announcement about Uniroyal-Goodrich for months. All the senior executives were in New York. We held an early-morning news conference that attracted national news media: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, NBC, CBS and ABC among others.

Those were still the days when the tire industry mattered to the U.S. economy. Thousands worked throughout the country in good-paying manufacturing jobs. Labor negotiations and contracts were closely watched by the national news media and by steel and automobile companies. And Akron was still the “Rubber Capital of the World.”

We made the announcement early in the morning in New York. I remained in Akron to answer questions from reporters – and I received hundreds, literally. And then a reporter asked me if I had heard about the space shuttle? No. But soon as I had the details I called my associates in New York. By that time the news conference had ended – and remember, this was way before the days of the Internet, cell phones, BlackBerrys, etc.

I remember the start of a brief conversation with Foster Smith, then Goodrich’s vice president of corporate communications, like it was yesterday.

“Foster, the space shuttle exploded.”

“Oh my God.”

Foster, like me a few minutes earlier, was stunned by the disaster.

Then after a minute or so he hurried off to tell others; I returned to a stack of messages from reporters.

I guess one point to all this is that no matter how hard you plan unexpected events can change everything. And again, this is an insignificant comment in the context of the space shuttle tragedy, but we lost the opportunity to let a national audience know that BFGoodrich was no longer a tire company. For the better part of the next 10 years we fought that battle, mostly unsuccessfully. But that’s a story for another day.

Today is a day to remember the crew of the space shuttle Challenger. It’s certainly a day I won’t forget.


2 responses to “Public relations plans and reality

  1. Another story about timing — and tires. And also insignificant in comparison the the Challenger disaster.

    About seven years earlier (1979) when Uniroyal was still just Uniroyal (and my client), I staged a press conference for automotive media in Detroit. It was the unveiling of the Royal Seal (later to become “Nail Guard”), the industry’s first commercially successful self-sealing tire. It was a dramatic moment for Uniroyal, as we had a new division president and we had a sexy new product to show the world. And sexy products don’t happen often in the tire business, lemme tell ya.

    The Royal seal was incredible. You could drill holes in it, punch nails through it and stomp on it with track spikes. It wouldn’t go flat.

    But our press conference did.

    Lee Iacocca, the new president of Chrysler, picked the same morning to to unveil his request for a U.S. government bailout of America’s number 3 automaker. Guess where the auto writers went!

    I still have nightmares about that one.

  2. Great post. You really captured this moment, and gave it an interesting and distinctive perspective.

    This was a very thought-provoking post!

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