The media has been giving Toyota quite a bit of grief these last few days, ever since their announced suspension of production of their biggest selling models in order to nail down and fix a potentially dangerous defect in their gas-pedal assembly. “Will the world’s largest automaker be able to recover?”, questioned one news program, and, “Toyota’s reputation in tatters!”, screamed another. The talking head at Toyota’s corporate PR department seemed befuddled. She stated that the move was consistent with the company’s absolute commitment to customer safety, and that customers would not only “get” that, but the brand would easily recover. Think Tylenol. I agree.
It goes to show you that no matter what you do, even when it’s the right thing, there’s always someone waiting to pounce on you, especially if you’re the top dog. It doesn’t matter that you’ve done everything right for 50 years and have built an enviable reputation; the moment you have a problem, the wolves are at your throat. Human nature at its basest.
Toyota’s move is unprecedented in the auto industry. While we can’t accurately predict what other companies would have done under the circumstances, I’d bet a case of Batter Blaster that the vast majority would have kept making and selling cars and just handled the recall under the normal recall procedure. After all, we’re talking a handful of incidents across the world. This ain’t no exploding Ford Pinto!
Strangely enough, I am a little disappointed in Toyota though, for its inept handling of the PR side. Perhaps this is a company that never really needed a Corporate Communications function; maybe they felt they were so above reproach that this couldn’t happen to them. There’s a lesson in that. Working as I have been in the PR world these last few months, I’ve come to learn that when the chips are down, you really need to have someone out there to tell your side of the story truthfully, accurately, and convincingly. I remember a little axiom I coined a few years ago: “Your life is like a vacuum; If you fail to fill it with what you want, others will fill it with what they want from you”.