The mess at Toyota

toyota-logoFirst let me state an important disclaimer. I have no first-hand knowledge or understanding of the issues Toyota is dealing with in its massive recall, other than what I have read, seen or heard. But I’ve been around the block enough that I can smell far deeper issues than Toyota has let on (to date).

In crisis communications, when the “story” changes and evolves, there is every reason to believe that a cover up is going on. The way Toyota is handling their current situation is a dreadful example of how not to handle a bad situation. The problem that Toyota is dealing with are ongoing reports of “stuck” accelerators in various Toyota models resulting in numerous deaths. Really bad stuff. A disaster. When an auto manufacturer screws up, as Toyota did, people die. Ironically Toyota has had a reputation for the highest quality and is the “Cadillac” (bad auto pun) of auto quality. They are clearly not the Cadillac of crisp, straightforward communications.

Here’s the golden rule that Toyota has forgotten—The cover up is worse than the crime

It is an awful situation where shoddy product quality results in deaths. When this happens it is the responsibility of the auto manufacturer to be swift, forthright and fair with the families of those injured/killed. Instead it appears that Toyota tried to (and is still trying to) minimize the problem and announced a recall only when the tidal wave of information forced it to act. The real question in any crisis situation is “What did they know and when did they know it”

The answer in this situation appears to be:  

A lot more than they’ve said–even to date–and a lot earlier than they communicated.

In fact the early communications placed the accelerator problem on floor mats—floor mats? Maybe so, in some cases, but that smells like “The dog ate my homework” to me. Now they claim it is a mechanical issue which can be easily repaired by inserting a reinforcement bar into the gas pedal. Full page newspapers ads in major papers throughout the country authored by Jim Lentz, President and COO of Toyota Motor Sales USA, are supposed to make me feel they are on top on the situation and have a plan. Sorry Jim, I don’t believe you. Too little, too late, and there are still murky unanswered questions, because federal officials are now looking into an even more serious and troublesome problem related to a software malfunction which has yet to be identified.

When the story changes daily, consumers lose confidence. Will Toyota get past this disaster? Perhaps. But I’ve lost respect for them as both a manufacturer and as a marketer. I suspect others have too. Respect is not easily regained.

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  1. Dan O'Neill says:

    Let’s not forget too the late entry of Mr. Toyoda himself into the public disclosure/discussion. That didn’t help what seemed like less than the full story from the start. Relatedly, good story in the Journal on March 5 on how many big Japanese companies lack the crisis communications chops of American firms and on how PR firms like Weber Shandwick are cleaning up in crisis counseling.

  2. Lonny Strum says:

    PR pros like you know that being reactive and sticking one’s head in the sand is a lousy strategy and blows up every time. Thanks for the feedback Dan. Too bad you now live in Red Sox Nation. Go Yankees.

  3. Camlin says:

    Wow great article! extremely informative and to the point.

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