Toyota, public relations and product recalls

image Never has so much public relations advice been given, totally free of charge, to a company as we’re seeing directed at Toyota following its global recall programme.

As with Tiger Woods late last year, the predicable crisis management, and online communications mantra is spouted: be open, tell all, tell it now.  “Tweet, tweet, tweet” because social media is the solution to every and any situation facing any brand – supposedly. 

Numerous “PR experts” are cited slating Toyota’s PR actions – as one “specialist” tells Reuters:

“People want to see a company take full responsibility, be empathic to the victims and their families and be in control by outlining the problem and how they intend to solve it. They also expect the CEO doing all this,”

The media seem to want more as the Guardian berates Akio Toyoda for his recent apology: “there were no tears, no lingering semi-prostration or pleas for forgiveness”.  It seems nothing short of high level ritual suicide will satisfy some of the commentators.

Yes, Toyota has a major reputational problem to manage, it has to investigate its processes and procedures, and needs to demonstrate that if quality really is a core value, it must be reinstated as its number one priority.  I say, “reinstated”, because I used to work in PR at Toyota GB in the early 1990s and saw how the Japanese parent company put quality at the heart of the business.

There are also questions for every organisation operating on a global platform, where situations such as a standard car recall can escalate to be a lead news item – stealing the headlines away from the major humanitarian disaster in Haiti.

What those issuing demands for immediate explanations and apologies seem not to understand is that life, and the problems it throws up, are not that simple to resolve.

Cars operate virtue of a complicated combination of mechanical, electronic and human actions.  They are driven in a wide variety of situations, often have multiple owners over their lifetime, and probably don’t receive regular daily/weekly safety checks or routine servicing. 

Things will go wrong – that’s true of even simple products.  There’s the story that GM issued a press release in response to a boast by Bill Gates about computer technology – highlighting what would happen if a car was like a computer.  Cars are largely driven by technology today – and GM’s comparisons may not be as far-fetched as we’d like.

The reality in organisations such as Toyota is that the PR people are not to blame for originating product-related issues and crises.  Their role in a product recall is normally quite small – as the issue is rightly addressed direct with customers via bodies such as VOSA and the DVLA in the UK. 

It should also be remembered that most recalls are precautionary – that something could happen, not that it definitely will.  Fire, failing brakes, “unintended acceleration” are all scary – but we are most at risk from our own driving behaviour or those of others, every time we venture on the roads. Even if a problem does occur, the likelihood is that you will be able to stop and get help – which makes knowing what to do in crisis situations something of vital importance to every driver. 

Of course, the issue with cars is that a failure can be a life or death situation – and the necessity for a recall needs to be recognised and undertaken with effective monitoring and reporting systems.  Communications between car retailers, their service departments, company customer relations, technical functions and production facilities need to enable issues to be identified early.

Then, solutions need to be found – which isn’t always easy.  Sometimes finding a fault is like an episode of House – it is a matter of trial and guesswork if onboard computer “blackbox” systems do not produce the answers and there is no obvious mechanical cause.

When a solution is identified, it needs to be implemented in terms of manufacturing components or developing software updates.  Then, the solution needs to be communicated (in a host of languages), parts shipped, training undertaken and work scheduled as and when it suits the customer. 

This is not like removing cases of Tylenol from a few chemist shelves (and check the actual reports of how long that really took). 

Whilst this process is going on, the PR people are fielding media questions (as well as being pro-active), liasing with colleagues internally and around the globe, advising executives, marketing and others on how and what to communicate – which is a constantly moving matter.

Meanwhile the media are reporting individual customer cases of problems in a “we told them so” manner, after calling for viewers and readers to contact them with their stories (which seem to be then accepted at face value).  Many of these are probably unrelated to the actual issue, but each needs the PR team to investigate and respond.

Communications with other stakeholders – from employees to shareholders, politicians to motoring groups, insurance companies to suppliers – need to be co-ordinated, updated and reported so that feedback is used as part of the ongoing process of being clear about what is happening and what needs to be done.

Existing PR plans and everyday tasks may still need to be implemented – or sidelined – as everyone works round the clock to do the best they can in managing the crisis. 

It is easy to call Toyota’s woes a PR disaster, nightmare, or similar insult of the hard-working public relations team who are doing their best with what they know and can do or say (remember there are legal constraints to consider).

It is easy to call for more social media engagement – ignoring the fact that Toyota (here in the UK) is using a blog (from the front page of its main website) as well as Twitter. Its staff may not be leaving comments in response to every post or reTweet – but in terms of priorities, when you’ve a small team and only 24 hours in the day, mainstream media reaches more viewers and readers, particularly those who are Toyota customers.

I’m not saying that Toyota couldn’t have done things better – and it will undoubtedly learn from this experience now and when there’s time to reflect.  But the classic ideas – or is that ideals? – on how to manage an emerging crisis are, as Eric Denzenhall says, a ridiculous cliche.

This is a complex world for PR management, as those such as Gilpin and Murphy have observed, noting a need to understand the “changeable and complex nature of crises” and how to operate within the “real-world environment of confusion, unforeseen events, and missing information”.

The PR world would do better to understand that there are no simplistic responses to issues and crisis management – and help our publics to realise that we live in a (post-modernist) world where things go wrong, where risks are a fact of life. 

It is ironic that the value of high profile brands is that they indicate that we can trust them.  This also means that when things go wrong, these organisations act to resolve problems.  Car companies routinely undertake recalls – even with old and worn vehicles – and implement rectifications often without charge to customers (including those who were not the original purchaser).

They are obligated to do so for legal reasons – as well as the pressures of falling share prices, declining sales and long-lasting damage to a hard-earned reputation, and a sense of corporate responsibility. 

And, let’s not forget that Toyota built its reputation on the basis of kaizen (continuous improvement) as part of the Toyota Way.   It needs to reflect its Gemba attitude and truly embrace genchi genbutsu as Mr Toyoda has promised.

I really hope that as Toyota’s reputation was built on solid foundations, it will recognise the necessity of this authentic approach and not follow the superficial “PR advice” in addressing the current crisis.  The only values that count are those that are worth protecting, even when that hurts.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

21 thoughts on “Toyota, public relations and product recalls”

  1. Great points, of which I would like to echo three: 1. Every crisis is different and should be approached as such; 2. Those pontificating aren’t likely in the same trench as Toyota and are therefore viewing from a convenient — albeit, flawed — vantage point; and 2. this, too, shall pass.

    Remember Audi? Since you mention Denzenhall, his former colleague, Nick Nichols, speaks quite effectively on the sham of the ‘sudden acceleration’ claims in the mid-’80s in his book, “Rules for Corporate Warriors.” (More here:

    Not that this is quite the same, but you never know how eerie the parallels may end up.

    Good post.

  2. Brilliant. You’ve fired a shot over the bow of a legion of crisis management “experts”. Consumers are forgiving once things are fixed. Hence, Toyota will bounce back sooner than most “experts” predict.

    The first global 24×7 rolling news crisis was Three Mile Island in 1979. Most PRs believe the problem there was waiting too long to speak up, while the company consulted lawyers and engineers. Weber Shandwick’s crisis management guru gets it completely wrong here: Crisis Make or Break – The First 24 Hours –
    Actually, the opposite was the case. The company said too much too soon and as a result it had no idea what it was taking about. Rather than cover things up, TMI’s operators’ ignorance and incoherence became transparent in real time, and that’s what nearly ruined the world’s nuclear industry reputation long before Chernobyl blew its top.

    As any motorist will tell you – speed kills. So there’s a lot to be said for doing things properly, especially in the social media age.

    Though that said, I don’t think that Toyota has handled everything well during this crisis. Mr Toyoda should have led from the front much more than he has – but he’s there now.

  3. Thanks for the reality check. We live in increasingly hysterical times.

    I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something more going on here. The negative tone (which as we know sets the course of a story) began in the US, where they make comparatively poor quality cars and their industry is in a mess. People have been a bit too keen to finally get one over on what has been a highly successful company.

  4. Bob – thanks for the link. I remember the Audi situation well as I’d just started working for a motor industry research consultant in the UK. People still believe in unintended acceleration though – and it seems there are plenty of lawyers in the US to chase any terrible accident.

    Paul – Priscilla Murphy wrote a paper about game theory and crisis management where she considers the strategy of buying time before responding. I think there is merit in being able to pause and give a more accurate response rather than being hounded into an immediate explanation. Time also allows organisations to be able to say exactly what can be done (or indeed has been done) rather than simply causing fear.

    Caroline – I have a feeling like you that there is a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in the US in this case. Some of the comments you see about Toyota are racist almost beyond belief. I’m also uncomfortable with the lack of respect for Japanese culture, with senior execs being bullied into behaving as Americans expect. It doesn’t seem to matter if an apology is a sham, but it needs to be quick and public – so the US media seems to believe.

    I just cannot believe the Toyota story is the main lead on the BBC news today though – there are far more serious issues that affect many more people. I also dislike the way that individual cases are reported without any apparent investigation by the media whilst everything a company or its representatives say is treated as a lie.

  5. Interesting blog Heather.

    I was at a ReputationOnline seminar last Friday about Dealing with a Crisis Online. Case studies included Dominoes Pizza and TfL. I’m learning fast that you need to act quickly

  6. Excellent post. It will be interesting to see how views of Toyota’s response evolve as we get through the crisis and the implementation of the response. Making a “definitive” evaluation today is rather like saying who won the match at half-time.

    I think that Toyota has now outlined very good steps for how it is addressing the problem, both at the micro level and at the systemic level. In my view, the reactions I have seen underestimate just how ambitious those changes are, and I am sure that Toyota will get more flak before it is all over because some of the actions will require significant institutional and cultural change, which are rarely speedy.

  7. Heather.

    Outstanding and insightful as always. You and I have both been there and understand the Toyota culture from the inside. Paul Seaman is right – timing is everything, although I would counter Chernobyl with Cadburys Salmonella in 2006.

    Crisis mangement is all about timing, but as I’ve said in sharing my own Toyota PR experiences and views the sheer scale of response and the speed in which they moved once the tipping point of irrefuteable evidence and public pressure was reached is incredible for an organisation and product recall of that size.

    Again, Paul Seaman has hit the nail on the head – it’s not about the technology, it’s about the nut behind the wheel.

  8. H
    As ever good stuff.I am glad we did not have to work at such speed in my day.
    My neighbour is at the dealer seeing if she can upgrade her current Yaris for a new one at a good price;opportunist, but knows a good product!

  9. The challenge Toyota face is that in a world of fast moving memes – things get polarised: the issues gets thrust into extreme shades of black and white – you are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In these instances they need to seize the high ground of identifying the emotional principles involved.

    There is also the danger of some managers wanting to please all of the people all of the time. There is a need to recognise that in the immediate, short-term you may suffer unpopularity – the real task is doing the right thing, and being seen to do the right thing at the right time.

    In a crisis I’m a great believer of using role models as a creative tool. One of my favourite role models is a fictional character: the lieutenant character played by Tom Hanks in the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’. When faced with a challenging situation I ask: ‘What would he do here, in this situation?’

    As Heather wisely notes, this is a complex situation, wth no instant magic answers or magic wands. A cool, steady hand, with an eye on the medium and long term issues is, I feel, the correct way of responding to the challenges. I’m sure that’s what the lieutenant would do!

  10. Debbie (greenie01) – the seminar sounds interesting, although I suppose one of my arguments is that acting quickly isn’t always the best option. I think too many of crisis “experts” see that as an absolute necessity – but with the online 24:7 world, can you ever act quickly enough, and indeed, is it even wise to act before you have enough information to make an informed comment. Sure, rumours and gossip may spread out of control, but what are you going to contribute by trying to jump into the middle of the fight? Sometimes, being the calm head, identifying when is the right time to intervene and being able to reassure on the basis of knowledge and practical action may be infinitely better than a kneejerk reaction.

    Kristen – I agree with you but remain hopeful that as the institutional and cultural change required of Toyota is a return to values that it once walked as well as talked, it should be able to regain its reputation sooner rather than later.

    Peter – thanks, enjoyed your post. The interesting thing about the Cadbury’s salmonella incident is how quickly that has been forgotten, even though they arguably got a lot wrong at the time. My PR undergrads presented on the Cabury’s gorilla advertising campaign the other week and had “discovered” the salmonella incident because they were researching Cadbury’s. Although that demonstrates that everything sticks around online, they were not aware of it and have been eating said chocolate all their lives.

    Gethin – as above, speed isn’t everything and in your day, I’m sure there were many major crises to deal with. Not least because poor quality cars were genuinely an issue – hence the reason why recalls are so slick now. Like the story about your neighbour too. I’m sure many people are spotting the opportunity amidst the crisis.

    Andy – again, I’m with you certainly on the short-term pain for long-term gain. One thing on role models though is that if these are personal, then the individual PR may be guided by their own inner morals/conscience/ethics – but is that consistent with the organisation’s values? Perhaps it is a helpful technique if everyone can agree on a common Private Ryan to guide them. Or, perhaps it helps if there is genuine understanding of what the organisation values and hence the question should have been “what would Toyota do now?” with everyone being really clear about the corporate path of righteousness.

  11. I agree with your post. In this care, it is going to be most important for Toyota to be transparent and take full responsibility for this issue. I think they also need to be considering what they are going to do to fix this problem. Since this issue is affecting safety and the lives of those driving toyotas there not only needs to be an explanation but a resolution!

  12. Heather: You are right regarding Toyota, as also reflected in various postings in my blog ( I’ve suggested though, that Toyota’s situation will go o and on, thanks to individually reported cases and litigation, and hence a new sub-specialty of PR may need to be hatched — Continuity Crisis Communications. A crisis that won’t stop or go away may require some new or extended communications strategies. Transparency both as to specifics and process is surely one, as is the importance of recruiting empathy and help from target audiences, especially customers. As a long-ago mid-America PR/Ad manager for Toyota, I can also say that the Japanese business culture needs further refinement for foreign consumption.

  13. Thanks for these comments – agree that the Toyota situation will be a long-term one to address. One consideration from a discussion with various colleagues who have experience with a range of Japanese companies is that there are different types of organisational culture rather than a single national one. There are also many aspects of Japanese business culture that are positive and many aspects of US business culture that are negative. I’d like to see many aspects of organisational culture undergo refinement for public consumption. Not least the tendency that has been evident in too many situations of organisations seeking to use political lobbying to avoid their responsibilities. That’s not something that can be related to any national culture alone as I see it.

  14. Heather: I agree that lobbying to avoid responsibilities should be anethema. There is a place for lobbying: organizations of all kinds help to educate legislators as to how to interpret technicalities of all kinds, and they even help draft constructive legislation. One of the reasons we need term limits for legislators, in my view, is that they tend to become too closely influenced by some lobbyists over time, with reduced ability for independent thinking and action. There needs to be more control of lobbying, and of financial support for legislators,

  15. for a company that seems so interested in there public relations it would seem that there dealers like the one in daytona beach florida where we just bought a new car would be more honest .as they just ripped us off for about 1700 dollars when we bought our new aras from them.after agreeing to pay 13000 dollars for our trade in .when our final pay off for our trade was only 11300 dollars they neglected to tell us that the pay off was different than expected .the sales person lied when we asked what the pay off for our car was.after agreeing to give us 13000 for our car we only got 11300 dollars.when asked what came back as the pay off he said just a little under our 13000 we wanted and said no more.very dishonest dealings .as we have a customer base ourselves of over 10000 customers we will be posting this on there e mail if this company doesn’t correct there dishonesty.sincerly AAhome SERVICES JOYCE BALTROMITIS 352-3220894

  16. i have bought 5 toyota products in past 8 years and recently bought a 2012 Fj with every option in it from Sunrise Toyota in NY. After i bought it i noticed it did not have under seat storage like my tacoma nor any rear storage like my 4runner,,when i addressed problem they said i would have to buy a cargo storage container,,,,i am a repeat customer and feel when you spend 38k for a vehicle . Every vehicle storage is manndatory and should be provided. Requesting a stortage container at no charge

  17. Regarding comments about poor service through Toyota dealerships – obviously this isn’t something I can comment on for individual cases, but any organization that doesn’t recognise and address the importance of customer care is building a longer term reputational issue. With car companies, the challenge is often that of working with their dealer partners to ensure that little issues do not impact on overall satisfaction.

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