I am happy to introduce our first guest blogger, Elissa Freeman. Elissa has more than 20 years experience in the public relations field and is currently a Director of Public Relations/Public Affairs at a large Canadian non-profit health charity in Toronto, Canada. Enjoy! ~ Jules

Pity Toyota’s PR team.

Not a popular sentiment these days, is it? The blogosphere has been rife with critiques, comments and conjecture about everything that’s wrong with Toyota’s PR.  Myself included.  During a recent Twitter #journchat discussion on the topic, my initial reaction was: “I wake up every morning thinking, ‘Thank Gawd I don’t work for Toyota.’”

And trust me that sentiment hasn’t changed.   I can only imagine what’s going on with Toyota’s PR team.

My guess is they (and maybe even their agencies) have been kept in the dark while Toyota executives were hoping their troubles would disappear.  What else could explain the complete communications collapse during this recall?

Had Toyota’s PR execs been ”in the know” since the beginning, a multi-tiered PR/Communications plan would have evolved encompassing all internal and external stakeholders.  Think about it: current Toyota owners still have no idea what do to with their cars; dealerships are floundering; and various media spokespeople are broadcasting a hodgepodge of reactive messages. What’s worse, the car manufacturer’s president, Akio Toyoda, is nowhere to be seen.

If this was indeed the situation, any PR pro would be mired in this web of deceit.

Toyota has known about its sticky pedal problem since March 2007, after debuting Tundra pick-up trucks.  Reports of the malfunctioning auto part abounded in all its markets, including Europe.  It eventually took a directive – and the threat of a multi-million dollar fine – from the US Department of Transportation to move the car company into action…in January 2010.

We all know what it’s like to be hit with a crisis.  Usually, it happens out of the blue, on a Tuesday at 4 p.m.   Or, you have the “luxury” of preparing for one.  In any case, PR pros are in direct touch with the main decision makers to ensure the brand doesn’t take a beating.

Perhaps Toyota fell victim to its own  “save face” philosophy, rather than admitting and preparing for its mistakes.  And despite their best efforts to play catch-up, the company’s PR folk are taking the fall.


By Elissa Freeman, Director, Public Relations, Toronto, Canada

Twitter: @elissapr

17 thoughts on “Pity Toyota PR ~ Guest Blog Post by Elissa Freeman

  1. The late great Louis XIV was asked how do you run France?
    Sounds like Toyota, doesn’t it!
    Thanks for shedding light on a very murky area, Elissa.

  2. I completely agree with Elissa’s perspective on this. Unsurprising mind you … I often agree with Elissa on most things.

    In my view, all of the pundits and Monday morning quarterbacks who are crowing about how *they* would have done things differently are missing the point. Good PR can’t be manufactured out of thin air and crisis communications doesn’t get you out of a crisis on its own. You have to have a good story to tell. That’s what we do … we help our clients tell stories. And it’s pretty clear that the PR team for Toyota doesn’t have all of the story, let alone a good one.

    The other thing to think about here is we’re not talking about a fly-by-night company. This isn’t Bruno’s Garage that got caught doing things on the cheap. This is a company with several decades of history, track record and demonstrable evidence of a brand proposition that is grounded in safety, quality and honesty. And yet … in the span of three short weeks, we’ve all been willing to throw that out the window and accuse them of being lying, incompetent buffoons. I don’t know about the rest of you, but something just doesn’t sit right with me about that.

    But … such is the power of modern media (social, digital and mainstream) and such is the power of corporate reputation. It may take 40 years to build, but it can be lost in just a moment.

  3. So true.. And to add insult to injury – more bad news for the car manufacturer today.

    Saving face is crucial in Japanese society. I suspect that the approach of non engagement iwas predicated in some way by their PR strategy (or lack of). The Japanese will try never to do anything to cause loss of face. It doesn’t excuse their misstep, but it may explain their reticence.

  4. Well, saving face is an old Japanese tradition. Is anyone going to fall on their swords over this? Or will upper management make the engineers do it for them?

  5. On the money as always, Elissa. It’s been alternately mystifying and horrifying to watch this PR fumble. Your scenario is the only one that makes sense.

  6. Wonderful to see different perspectives coming to the same conclusion. Many thanks to Elissa for bringing this timely topic to Z Group PR’s blog. To the pitiful PR pros at Toyota, we feel for you!

  7. Touche @elissapr!

    PR can be a brand’s best friend…or in Toyota’s case worst enemy.

    Toyota needs to learn something that our mom’s all used to tell us when we were younger “keep yourfriend’s close, and your enemies even closer!”

    Hasn’t PR proven itself over the years? Eg. The Tylenol crisis, the Maple Leaf Foods food poisoning and the Domino’s employee scandal?

  8. Although Japanese custom to save face and organizational inertia may conspire to delay and defer facing up to quality problems, the DNA of Toyota is their famous Toyota Production System, where the lowliest worker is empowered to stop the production line if a component has substandard quality. I agree that Toyota has been unusually opaque in dealing with the public on this matter, but perhaps they were also being characteristically thorough with their analyis of the problem and determining the best possible solution with their supplier before they could announce their course of action. Idling their plants until a solution was found speaks volumes about their integrity.

  9. Ah….the old senior executive “maybe it will go away…let’s not draw attention too it by bringing in the PR team!” wisdom…

    If this is in fact the case, and Elissa is likely right because how else could they have screwed up in such epic proportions, then I only have one thing to say….IDIOTS…

  10. Those who mention “saving face” and “falling on the sword” in connection with Toyota, demonstrate their lack of understanding of Japanese culture and business practices. My work for the governments of Japan and Vietnam, has taught me that “saving face” has nothing at all to do with covering up ones own shortcomings to “save face.” Saving face is rather a level politeness and good intentions that one brings to every business and personal encounter — be it with a partner, client, boss, employee, or even adversary. One may work diligently to win in a negotiation for example, but one must never take so much that it would leave the other person without his or her dignity or “face.”

  11. Toyota had a massive communication fail, but I agree with Elissa that it is not the fault of the company’s public relations team.

    As any good public relations professional (or student, like me) knows, communications is key when dealing with a crisis situation. The public does not like to be in the dark, which is exactly what Toyota did. Even worse, they kept their local offices and dealerships out of the loop. Customers had no where to turn to for answers, and dealerships were bombarded with angry customers.

    Had the Toyota team allowed their communications team to tackle the issue when or before the story broke, they would not be receiving such flack in the press. As Elissa mentioned, by ignoring the issue and not having a spokesperson present at the start of the fiasco, Toyota’s reputation suffered.

    Now, it seems that Toyota has taken a page from Maple Leaf Food’s crisis communication plan. Their television commercial is eerily similar to Maple Leaf’s during the listeria crisis, with the president standing at the window of their plant/dealership. The full page ad in the Globe and Mail (Saturday, I believe) is also quite similar. Had Toyota employed this method at the start of the problem, customers would have felt much more secure in their purchasing choice.

    Reports already say that Toyota sales have gone down and analysts suspect they will continue to drop. I think that Elissa’s interpretation of the PR team and their actions was spot on and hopefully they can salvage their reputation.

  12. Quite interestingly, people have missed the complexity of cultural difference in respect to global PR efforts. Certainly, there is a glaring mishandling of communication and crisis management on Toyota’s behalf. Toyota chose a strategy that rode on the company’s reputation and delayed addressing its external publics. I think a good question is what crisis plan was in place and did it take into consideration the leadership style of its top executive, Mr.Toyoda?

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