Will Toyota’s PR fiasco drive it into the slow lane?

Posted on March 26, 2010. Filed under: Public Relations | Tags: , , |

Toyota, which built its brand not around sizzle but quality and reliability, has allowed its rather ordinary recall to metastasize into a reputation-threatening crisis. Incentives seem to be putting a little more polish on the brand, but good PR is still essential for long-term performance.

Unlike Johnson & Johnson’s reaction to its Tylenol-tampering scare in 1982, Toyota officials chose to ignore complaints about sudden unintended acceleration in some of its vehicles. Rather than come forward with hat in hand to offer a heartfelt mea culpa to its customers, and to outline detailed plans to remedy the problem, the carmaker responded with delays, obfuscation and buck-passing. As a result, Toyota’s fleeting opportunity to take control of the story evaporated, leaving the automaker in an untenable public relations predicament.   

Toyota’s inability to act quickly and implement a crises communications strategy to offset the flood of negative attention tarnishing its brand will likely be examined for years by PR wonks. The consensus view among PR and crises management professionals is that J&J’s bold handling of Tylenol’s safety scare was key to its success. In fact, within weeks J&J developed tamper-resistant packaging, which, in the end, served to heighten the value of the Tylenol brand by making product safety one of its hallmarks. What’s more, while J&J’s share price and market share plunged on the news, the pharmaceutical concern’s stock was 10% higher a month later due in part to J&J’s prompt response – something consumers and investors alike were willing to reward. 

By contrast, following Toyota’s safety scare, its top brass are now facing a blistering inquiry by congressional members eager to parade their pro-American bona fides — or alternatively, score political points by soothing Detroit’s smarting ego. Long sensitive to the potential for backlash for becoming the market leader in worldwide sales, Toyota may also have to manage pent-up resentment in the U.S. generated by its displacement of General Motors from its leadership status at a time when U.S. manufacturing jobs are flagging. And in its all-out push to become the world’s top carmaker, Toyota admittedly strayed from its core value of focusing on the customer and quality.

Making matters worse, competitors, including Ford and GM, are now angling to exploit Toyota’s Achilles’ heel to poach customers by playing up their own vehicle safety records and promoting strides in dependability. Indeed, Toyota’s recall will test its legions of loyal customers.    

But can Toyota still win the PR war and recover from the worst crisis in its storied history? In short, yes!

Toyota’s slow response to its sticking accelerators manifested the gulf between Western and Japanese corporate cultures (Toyota’s glacial decision-making process is legendary). No doubt, Toyota will apply the same rigor to resolving its safety issues that has made its widely emulated lean manufacturing philosophy and production line efficiencies the envy of world. The venerable Japanese company will need to effectively communicate these re-focused plans to the media … quickly.      

Toyota can fine tune its communications strategy by evaluating their coverage and understanding who their key influencers are and what they’re saying. Check back next week for a look at how Toyota’s recall played out in traditional and social media.

Brian Panton is a quality assurance specialist and report writer in Washington, DC.

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