WASHINGTON, D.C., March 26—When crisis struck last year, there were so many indications that Japanese tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone did not have a communications culture that the absence of a Washington office barely registered. But since the tire recall and subsequent congressional investigation, Bridgestone has invested heavily in both public relations and lobbying, and this week hired Steven Akey away from Edelman Public Relations Worldwide to serve as its first vice president for government affairs.

Akey was a senior vice president and director of transportation policy at Edelman, and has an impressive track record in the transportation sector, having served as a senior strategist and chief spokesman for former transportation secretary Rodney Slater in the Clinton administration and earlier as director of public affairs for the Federal Highway Administration.

“This is part of our ongoing commitment to continue an open dialogue with members of Congress, the administration, government agencies and other organizations,” says John Lampe, the company’s new chief executive, appointed last fall. “Steven’s expertise in transportation bridges private and public sectors, making him particularly well suited to help lead this endeavor.”

Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires last summer, and the company’s tires have now been linked to 174 deaths across the country.

One of Akey’s first priorities when the Washington office open formally next month will be to work with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as it implements new auto-safety legislation prompted by the tire recall and passed last year. New Bridgestone/ Firestone CEO John Lampe has already traveled to Washington this year to meet with Senate Commerce chairman John McCain, who proposed legislation to further regulate tire manufacturers last year, and House Energy & Commerce chairman Billy Tauzin, who sponsored the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act in the wake of the recall.

Bridgestone/ Firestone spent over $2 million on outside lobbying firms during the last six months of 2000, according to reports filed by the lobbying firms. Ben Barnes, the former Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas, reported fees of $600,000 for the six-month period, while Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld earned $500,000. 

The Washington Group, which was acquired earlier this year by Bridgestone/Firestone public relations agency Ketchum, was one of three firms that earned $160,000 from the company. 
From January through June 2000, the company spent only $40,000 on outside lobbyists.