Backlash from customers, canceled appointments and changing tire orders were a handful of situations Goodyear tire dealers experienced last week after a supposed photo from an Aug. 18 presentation at the company’s Topeka, Kansas facility went viral.
“I didn’t come into work on Tuesday with the intention of being a PR manager,” Jimmy Moody, co-owner of Tennessee-based Moody’s Tire & Auto Service, told Tire Review Aug. 21. “Part of running a business is wearing many hats, even when they are unexpected.”
The photo in question appears to be a slide from a presentation that listed what’s acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace. Acceptable: Black Lives Matter (BLM) and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pride. Unacceptable: Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Make American Great Again (MAGA) attire and political-affiliated slogans or material. The photo gained national attention in the Twitterverse when President Donald Trump tweeted: “Do not buy Goodyear Tires – They announced a ban on MAGA hats.”
For dealers, that’s when the customer calls started to come in. One email Moody received read, “I have been a long-time customer going back 15 years, and I read the article about Goodyear banning MAGA hats and …until that stops, my business will go to the Ford dealership.”
Last week, Goodyear dealers across the country were confronted with cancel culture, the act of “removing support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions.” Replace “public figures” with a specific tire brand, and you have the attack the Goodyear brand endured last week.
“What the internet brought us is everyone has a bullhorn, and everyone can weigh in,” says Richard Levick, chairman and CEO of LEVICK, a global crisis communications firm out of Washington D.C. with public affairs matters from the Catholic Church to the Wall Street crisis under their belt.
“Where we are now is responding isn’t fast enough, and on the internet, facts be damned,” he continued, remarking on the rapid spread of messages – true or untrue – in today’s world. “Once we assume something is true, no amount of facts can undo it. It’s all about perceived narrative, not about truth.”
So, when confronted with a form of cancel culture, how should tire dealers – independent business owners at the local level – navigate it?
Coming Under Fire
Taking a look back through history, Levick says boycotts and refusals of support, both aspects of cancel culture, typically don’t gain traction. Why? Because they’ve been done before, are temporary and most people ignore them. His advice? Be patient. Know it will pass in time.
“Get through those days you’re on the firing line, and just as it flared up with extraordinary speed, it will slow down,” he says. His other piece of advice? Write down your response to the current situation. Have it handy because you’ll have to repeat it and be gentle and clear in doing so.
Brian Kelvington, owner of Country Roads Tire and Auto in West Virgina, had his response prepared after one of his managers posted it to the shop’s Facebook page. “We are two Independent Goodyear locations in Martinsburg & Hedgesville and treat all customers with the same utmost respect regardless of political affiliation,” the statement read. Kelvington said it was posted along with Goodyear’s statement in response to customer backlash they received.
“Goodyear is one of our bread and butters, but we’re independent and here for the customer and will do whatever they need,” he said. “There’s always been confusion around our branding as far as our shop goes. People just know us as Goodyear, but people who’ve been doing business with us know us as County Roads Tire and Auto. It’s one of those things that’s usually good, but in cases when something like this happens, we want to make sure we’re independent of the decisions that were made by Goodyear corporate.”
Goodyear did clarify its policy after the photo was released to make it clear that employees could express support for law enforcement. Tire Review emailed Goodyear on Aug. 21 to see how the company was working with dealers to help them with public relations at the local level, and a Goodyear spokesperson said the company had nothing to add beyond its original statement.
Kelvington said it’s too early to tell if this situation affected his business, but he had positive conversations with customers after explaining his business model.
“They just want their voices heard,” he said, “whether the facts are there or not.”
Arm Yourself with Good PR
When cancel culture comes for you, it’s hard to defend yourself. The best defense is a good offense, so start sending the messages you want your customers to know about your business during “peacetime,” Levick says.
“It’s the difference between cancer spotted and cancer after it’s metastasized,” he says. “The argument that you’re a local, small business is hugely important and powerful. Continue to make that clear during peacetime when people will listen.”
Scott Welsh, owner of Courtesy Auto Service & Tire of Tacoma in Tacoma, Washington, said his Goodyear store has spoken with only one customer who took his business elsewhere. A two-time Tire Review Top Shop finalist, Courtesy Auto did what Levick advises small businesses to do during peacetime: Build trust and support ahead of time.
“You can’t make everyone happy all the time, but we’ll get him back,” Welsh says, “and he’ll eventually do business with me because he can’t find a better place. I always think about my long-term goal.”
One way to build support for your business is through video. “People hear with their eyes,” Levick says. “Create them in peacetime. You can do them inexpensively, and the message should be, ‘We’re a locally-owned company’ and feature people from the community.”
Levick also advises business owners to observe trends in public opinion that are taking shape over time. Patrick Stuhldreher, general manager for Tire Source, an independently-owned dealership with six locations in northeast Ohio that waves the Goodyear flag, did this as he noticed an increase in calls from customers expressing their disagreement with the store’s political views. When he noticed this, he started to coach shop managers in dealing with the issue.
“We just try to hear [customers] out and try to say as little as possible. We don’t want to get drawn into this,” Stuhldreher said, adding that the store remains a supporter of Goodyear. “We’re apolitical. Our stance is neutral.”
Another piece of PR advice Levick shared is to look for “reasonable critics,” those who will defend your business to others during both peacetime and a crisis. Moody calls them “allies,” the people who shared information with him about the buzz going around, as he put it.
Although the buzz has died down, Moody has learned as a result of this crash course in crisis communications that he wants to be able to chart his own path.
“I’m going to focus on advertising Moody’s brand first,” he says. “I appreciate and support the brands that have helped us over the years. Going forward, I want to drive my own path and promote our brand and the values associated with it.”