It’s very rare that the mainstream media covers automotive stories. When they do, it’s typically one of two headlines:
1. FORD RECALLS 2.7 MILLION VEHICLES WHICH WILL KILL YOU FOR EVEN LOOKING AT THEM, followed the next week by: HONDA RECALLS 2.9 MILLION VEHICLES WHICH ARE EATING SMALL CHILDREN, followed the next week by: NISSAN RECALLS 3.1 MILLION VEHICLES IN LARGEST RECALL IN HUMAN HISTORY,
2. TESLA STOCK UP 30 PERCENT THE DAY AFTER YOU SOLD IT. (Fortunately, this one isn’t true. I never bought Tesla stock, largely because their next vehicle can only be described as a minivan that may, at any moment, take flight, but will not be able to fit in a residential garage.)
The recent Jeep story certainly fits into the former category. For proof, I look no further than CNN.com, which has run the following headlines in the last two days:
- Is your Jeep safe to drive?
- Jeep defect worse than Pinto
- Witness: Jeep went up in flames
As I write this, CNN has three different Jeep-related stories on its homepage, sandwiched between “New, risky way to get drunk” and – I promise this next one is true – “She didn’t know she was pregnant.” This, ladies and gentlemen, is today’s hard-hitting news media.
Before you accuse me of political bias, I should note that, while Fox News has largely stayed away from the Jeep story, they are currently running a headline that reads: “Pennsylvania prison guard allegedly buys stereo from inmate.” This is poor reporting, because they have not even announced whether the inmate knows about the new, risky way to get drunk.
Anyway: back to Jeep. Yesterday, Jalopnik ran an article about the problem, covering both the NHTSA’s stance and the issue itself. But today, I have an entirely different question: is this entire thing an enormous PR mistake for Jeep?
For those of you unfamiliar with the issue, let’s go back to the start. Since 2011, Jeep has been under investigation by the NHTSA for claims that some of its SUVs catch on fire when they’re hit from behind. These claims largely stem from several incidents where Jeeps caught on fire when they were hit from behind.
As a result, the government wants Jeep to recall 2.7 million vehicles – 1992-2004 Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Libertys – to rectify the issue. But Jeep says they shouldn’t have to recall the vehicles, since they met the minimum federal motor vehicle safety standards. The government seems to agree Jeep met the standards, but notes: “The existence of a minimum standard does not require NHTSA to ignore deadly problems. Viewed another way, a FMVSS does not preclude a finding of a safety related defect in a vehicle when supported by the evidence.”
So the two groups are at a standstill, and no one’s sure exactly what to do, but we are certain it will include considerable bureaucracy. Presumably, CNN will report on this with the headline: BUREAUCRACY DELAYS JEEP RECALL OF VEHICLES THAT WILL KILL YOU AS YOU SLEEP.
Since we’ve covered the issue itself, I think there’s another interesting angle here. Namely: is Jeep doing the right thing from a public relations standpoint?
Consider it: you were incredibly excited to buy a new Compass, presumably for your teenage daughter. You were about to go into the Jeep dealer and offer half the MSRP, which they would probably accept. And then you visit CNN.com, where you discover that Jeep’s vehicles are a larger fire risk than the Ford Pinto.
The question is: does this make you want to stay away from Jeep? Is anyone out there going to avoid Jeep because of this story? Will sales plummet? Could this possibly be a worse blunder than the styling of the new Cherokee?
There are two potential arguments here. On the “bad move” side, one could argue that Jeep may earn the perception that it’s generally unsafe, should the issue get much bigger. (Note that I avoided use of the phrase “if the issue blows up,” thereby preventing you from a massive eye roll.)
But on the flip side, Jeep might be doing the right thing. How many people will this cause to avoid buying a new Jeep, considering the most recent car involved is six years old? Experts say a fix will cost $300 million and $500 million, and it’s hard to believe Jeep will lose that much profit from the bad publicity.
Then again, it very well could. After all: by this time tomorrow, the headlines might read: ALL JEEPS EVERYWHERE ARE MONSTROUS KILLERS. And that would be a PR nightmare.
So, what do you think? Is Jeep making the right move?
@DougDeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com and writes for The Truth About Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.