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Crisis PR Minus Authenticity

March 29, 2010

courtesy of Disney Animation

It has been said that good drama puts its main character on a limb of a tree and then starts cutting off the limb. The rest of the story is just finding out what the character is made of.

Toyota is a brand out on a limb, and what we’re finding out about the company is not pretty. The core value of its brand–quality–has been considerably weakened, and its actions on the limb have been at best questionable.

It’s a perfect storm for Toyota’s PR team, a case in point that if your company chooses not to be authentic, all you’ve got is spin. And in today’s PR environment, spin just doesn’t cut it.

As a PR professional, which of these two crisis scenarios would you rather manage?

1. Your company has sold hundreds of thousands of cars knowing that there were manufacturing problems.

2. Your company has sold hundreds of thousands of cars not aware that there were manufacturing problems.

This is the dilemma faced by Toyota. And it’s made worse by the reactive piecemeal approach Toyota’s taken in response to their problems.

The reality appears to be a third scenario. And it’s worse.

3. Toyota initially did not know there were manufacturing problems with the cars, but when it found out, the company framed it as an equipment problem rather than a manufacturing problem, recalled only a portion of the affected cars, and when accused by the press in November of knowingly “ignoring runaway cars,” strongly denied it, and continued selling the cars.

It took until the last week of  January for Toyota to issue a massive recall and suspend sales of all affected models; and nearly a month more for its CEO to offer an apology blaming manufacturing issues.

An apology that’s too late and too little. Sure, Toyota is in a heap of trouble legally. Attorneys are literally lining up to negotiate massive civil lawsuits. So, apologizing may not be what legal counsel is advocating.

Fine. In that case, run the GM playbook. Show strength even when the brand appears weak by communicating that you’ve got control of the situation and you’re going to make it right. Toyota actually began to take this approach. After its belated apology, the company created a recall website and ran a well made television commercial campaign that was patterned after the GM Reinvention commercial.

But needing to sell cars, Toyota has shifted its message and image. With no apology in sight on its websites, Toyota is now running low-budget ads that offer discounts, thanking customers for their loyalty.

These TV ads do nothing for its image as an industry leader. They’re just odd. They don’t apologize, but feel sheepish and well, desperate, as expressed in this tweet a few days ago from @audi22 (who apparently does not own a Toyota):

“There are two things Toyota just can’t seem to stop: 1) Desperate, suck-up commercials. 2) Their cars.”

Desperate. The new Toyota brand? Remember, your brand is not what your advertising agency creates. It’s what you are in the minds of consumers. Bad news for Toyota.

But that’s what happens when a brand out on a limb won’t be authentic in the first place. Your consumers don’t stick with you because your actions in crisis don’t make you trustworthy. The result is having to adapt your brand and PR to meet what your audience thinks your brand is  and what it’s worth now.

There are no easy answers for Toyota and its PR team. Spin and discounting may sell a few cars, but those strategies won’t increase the trustworthiness of the Toyota brand. Only quality products will do that, which will take time to prove once again.

Good luck out there on that limb.


UPDATE (April 5, 2010): NY Times reports that the federal government’s Transportation Department is seeking the maximum penalty (more than $16M) for not notifying government sooner of problems with defective gas pedals, saying the evidence shows Toyota knew of the problem in September but did not issue the recall until late January.

UPDATE (April 8, 2010): PRNewser reports that Toyota’s top USA PR executive warned that the company needed to “come clean” about mechanical problems that could trigger sudden acceleration in its cars.

UPDATE (September 2, 2011): Mashable reports on how Toyota has used social media to help pull itself out of their PR crisis.

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