I heard it on CNN this week and can’t get the phrase out of my head: “Toyota Comes Out Swinging,” they repeated, over and over again, echoing the carmaker’s claim that the so-called “runaway car problem” is not really a problem.
To repeat something I said in my first blog about the Toyota crisis: I have absolutely no idea how a brand so huge, so profitable, and so able to hire quality PR and brand talent can be conducting itself so cluelessly from a communications perspective.
Previously I speculated that the root of the problem lies within the corporate culture – based on a Wall Street Journal article that reported on employees’ dissatisfaction with the transparency of the company’s leadership.
Now I am thinking that there may also actually be a crisis management strategy at work here (no doubt one that Toyota leadership is comfortable with) that dictates a very aggressive “hit them back hard to avoid looking weak” type approach.
From a PR perspective this makes sense, in a way, because Toyota is trying to win back the massive amount of credibility it stands to lose in this scandal. It hasn’t lost that credibility yet – people, I think, are still wavering – so it is trying to show that people are just taking advantage of an opportunity to scam them, perhaps to make a quick buck.
Normally, I can see how aggressiveness in the face of attack could be a good approach. If marketing is war (read the book Brand Warfare; it’s good), you want to go to battle fully armed and looking strong, not weak and apologetic, because then the opposing army will see your weakness and destroy you. (Or from a marketing perspective, the consumer will see that you are silent or meek and assume guilt.)
The problem, however, is the perception that not only did Toyota scam the public by hiding the problem with its acceleration system, but also that the problem it was hiding or minimizing is life-threatening. If perception equals brand reality, the Toyota brand right now equals profit over people, a disregard for the human cost associated with selling lots of cars.
So now, the company’s external communication (PR + advertising) adds illness to injury: It offers a quick apology along with a “heritage” TV commercial, goes out quickly with different bright and sunny TV spots that seem to disavow the problem, and then launches a PR offensive against someone whose 911 call triggered an investigation.
Not only is this approach incompetent – because it actually damages the company’s reputation for quality and integrity – but it also destroys the brand, because it detracts from the fundamental attribute that is core to all brands: TRUST.
This is what happens when a company pursues PR, advertising and other efforts without considering the impact on its brand – the long-term effects of these communications, the fact that brand is defined by the consumer.
What the company needs to do now is rebuild the relationship it has very badly damaged. That means getting out in front of the cameras (yes, I’ll say it again), apologizing over and over, personally meeting with customers, holding town halls, you betcha. If somebody is exploiting the acceleration issue to make a buck they can deal with that issue fully, fairly, and legally. But they shouldn’t aim to assert any kind of moral superiority to a one-time scam artist when they seem to have scammed the public themselves, and on a much larger scale.
The other thing they ought to do is build a social media infrastructure that supports interaction between representatives of the company and the public that has been wounded, literally and/or figuratively. Without crossing the line into talking about confidential legal issues, they can open a window to the public and show a certain level of collaboration in developing a long-term trust repair solution that will work. Who knows, maybe it means opening up their plants to a lot of independent investigation for a while, both inside and outside the government. Or changing the name. Or taking some other less drastic measures in between. A lot of things can help move them forward. But continuing to pursue this same track of “deny, attack, and when in doubt stay silent” will definitely not.