Toyota’s Accelerated Crisis

February 1, 2010 at 10:45 pm Leave a comment

News of Toyota’s huge recall and “stop sale” has saturated the media–traditional, online and social. The title of a Los Angeles Times article summarizes the coverage and commentary: “Toyota Hopes to Fix Image Along with Gas Pedals.” This is a PR disaster of the first order, perhaps of a new order as Toyota’s decades of sales and reputation growth are threatened. Notice I didn’t say “threatened by a sudden turn of events.” This story has been unfolding for months, a timeline that is the crux of Toyota’s crisis.

The problem: Toyota has uncannily emulated the disregard for public relations and the public’s intelligence of “the cheaters league:” John Edwards, Tiger Woods, Mark Sanford, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, et al. These are the powerful and influential who stonewall, delay, deny or at best offer puny half-truths when initially exposed. The public issues a collective thumbs-down and the bloodsport proceeds…except those in the arena are not romanticized gladiators. They are malefactors turned fools and lion bait.

Toyota has been dodging and stumbling across the Colosseum floor since the unintended acceleration story broke in 2009. U.S. Group VP Bob Carter declared ill-fitting floormats the “sole cause” in November, drawing a rebuke from the NHTSA and an “oh please” from everyone else. This is the same Bob Carter who said of the new recall and sales halt, “This action is necessary until a remedy is finalized.” Here’s one remedy: recall Carter.

Many remain unconvinced that replacing accelerator pedals will solve the problem, a rush to judgement Toyota precipitated with its prior footdragging. The media has suggested a more insidious gremlin in the company’s electronic throttle control, a theory that Toyota has ruled out. Beleaguered gas pedal supplier CTS has pointed out that complaints of unintended acceleration have predated their units’ placement in Toyota vehicles (while CTS has the right and obligation to defend itself, it must avoid Firestone’s reflexive fingerpointing seen during the Ford Explorer rollover crisis a decade ago).

Now Toyota finds itself in the same sad countdown that John Edwards perpetuated before he finally admitted paternity…only after a men’s room barricade, televised denials, a noble book by his (soon-to-be) ex-wife, and a tell-all by his ex-aide. Journalists and lawyers are now searching for the corporate versions of DNA swabs and sex videos. By hoping the problem would go away, Toyota made sure it wouldn’t.

POSTSCRIPT 1: BusinessWeek reports that Toyota president Akio Toyoda has been eluding the media as the recall crisis grows. Mr. Toyoda has publicly apologized for Toyota’s shortcomings in the recent past. Now that the unintended acceleration story has reached a new critical point, he must remain visible, accountable and engaged.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak speculates that Toyota’s unintended acceleration may be a software problem after his Prius regularly sped up while on cruise control.

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Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

Update from the Afghan Communications Front Sitrick is Here; now you know it’s a crisis

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