Toyota’s BIG “Whoops”. Dealing with a PR nightmare…

14 03 2010

Toyota had spent years building a reputation that branded their company as a manufacturer of safe, reliable, affordable vehicles. All of their hard work seemingly came tumbling down recently as a defect that had caused fatal accidents came into the limelight.

Toyota had recalled 4.2 million vehicles due to faulty floor mats that prevented proper braking , and later discovered that an accelerator pedal that was prone to “sticking” could also be a root cause of the problem.

The issue cause several accidents including several fatal accidents, which prompted lawsuits against Toyota.

The issue even caused Consumer Reports to remove their “recommended” badge from all affected Toyota vehicles. A large number of recalled automobiles, several lawsuits and deaths, and intense media scrutiny landed Toyota amidst a literal PR crisis.

The way Toyota handled the issue can be used as a lesson for those in the PR industry. Many people thought Toyota was slow to respond to the issue, hoping it would disappear on its own, but after a brief delay the company laid out an extensive crisis communications response.

Toyota responded to the crises by using both traditional and new media channels. Toyota’s President/CEO, Jim Lentz, appeared in numerous television interviews to answer questions surrounding the issue. Lentz also signed a letter that appeared in 20 major US newspapers, which explained the steps Toyota would take to remedy the problem. New media was also utilized in communicating Toyota’s message. Lentz answered questions about the recall via Twitter and Digg.com. Toyota created videos on their YouTube channel that again responded to frequently asked questions and provided insights explaining how Toyota planned to fix the problem. Popular television ads were used to respond to the problem. In most of the commercials Toyota admitted to not living up to their name, and basically asked forgiveness on the grounds of the companies well-established track record of excellence. Additionally, the company reached out to Toyota owners via personalized letters.

I would say considering the severity of the issue that Toyota did a good job responding to the literal crisis. The response put Toyota’s CEO into the spotlight. The campaign provided executive visibility to the public, a practice that is recognized as an effective PR tactic amidst such a crisis. Toyota also admitted fault, and outlined what they plan to do to remedy the situation. They utilized several different mediums including social media, television, and print media.

I do not know what the future for Toyota holds, but I can tell you this: there are numerous class action lawsuits being filed daily. Toyota is bound to be burnt financially by their mistake, which will inevitably end up costing them billions and billions of dollars.

This is a crisis that will taint the Toyota brand for years, but even more sad, the incident caused numerous deaths that could have been prevented. The families of those who had been lost will never have their family member back, and no amount of money from Toyota will be able to fill that void. This particular incident garnered massive media attention not only because of the widespread nature of the problem, but also because people were sympathetic of the victims.

If you are not feeling sympathetic yet, try listening to the 911 call of a family before they became the victim of a tragic accident . . .  it is truly heartbreaking.

Only time will tell in seeing if Toyota is able to strengthen their brand and public perception.

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