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.