Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why Toyota Should Rebound

Prior Relationships Key to Image Restoration

What a mess!
Your company is taking hits left and right; your once-sparkling image is seemingly ruined forever, and things just keep getting worse. But what does the strategy behind public relations tell us about what lies ahead? Is there hope? Read on to find out …

Photo of the latest blue Toyota 4Runner model at the Washington Auto Show for 2010.
Toyota hopes its image is soon back to being as polished as this latest version of the 4Runner was at the 2010 Washington Auto Show. | Photo by Joshua A. DeLung

… In recent weeks, there has been quite a bit said about Toyota’s misfortune concerning recalls of certain models — floor mats, accelerator pedals and potentially problematic brakes. Yeowch! This is definitely not a situation in which a company wants to find itself. And while it may be every PR practitioner’s dream to successfully manage a crisis for an organization, when the actual event arrives, things don’t seem so glamorous.

I’m not going to focus on what has already been said day in and out. We know Toyota is in trouble, and we’ve seen plenty of prescriptions for what they should’ve done, could’ve done better and how and why and all that jazz. But the past is the past, and as PR folks, it’s our job to continuously perform environmental scanning (which might prevent a crisis altogether, but that's a post for another day). Seeing into the future is tough, but we have to make our best estimates, investigate trends and do some solid research when digging out of a crisis. Take note of what went wrong in order to avoid letting it happen again, but figuring out the next step quickly is imperative. That's where restoration and renewal come in.

The media offer didactic messages about lessons learned and adjudicative ones that tell us who to blame. But as practitioners, we must ask ourselves what part of our organization’s response has been positive in attempt to retell our story and push toward image restoration. Social networking sites and other outlets can help us circumvent mainstream media somewhat to start a new conversation, though we can’t underestimate MSMs (dwindling?) power.

In some cases, apologia and corrective action may be enough to restore faith in an organization, but in the event of a large-scale crisis, renewal efforts are more complex, requiring us to uphold our commitments to stakeholders and re-establish our core values. If your company is someone like, say, Microsoft, with a history of bullying and buggy software, then you might need to consider renewal. In other words, a rebranding of your organization — find a way to start over with a more positive way of doing business. For most organizations, though, image restoration is possible after a crisis within an organization where the culture has historically been one that encouraged ethics and responsibility.

And herein lies the key to being resilient after crisis: relational history. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of maintaining good relationships with key publics and encouraging an ethical and responsible culture at all times internally.

An organization has the best chance at bouncing back after a crisis situation by having a stellar and trustworthy reputation in the first place.

As PR practitioners, it’s our job to point out to CEOs (or anyone else) when their actions could taint the company's reputation. Because, let’s be honest, if you’re acting like an Enron Corporation all the time, then your chances at image restoration are slim to none.

This is why I think Toyota will eventually bounce back from its recent problems. I have heard plenty of doom-and-gloom statements about how the company is finished, especially in the U.S., but I’m not so sure. Will it take plenty of time? Of course. But Toyota wasn’t known for being flashy (Ferrari), luxurious (Mercedes-Benz) or rough-and-tough (Ford). Toyotas are known for dependability, practicality and being fuel-efficient and long-lasting.

It is because of these reasons that Toyota will be able to regain its customers’ support and eventually gain new buyers. That is, of course, considering it takes care of concerns about the recalls properly by getting it right the first time and by giving affected customers the red-carpet treatment. Establishing trust with key publics day in and day out should be utmost in the mind of every PR practitioner. If it is, then when a dreaded crisis strikes, image restoration will be an available next step.

Full disclosure: I own a Toyota, though not one affected by the recalls. I was not paid in any way for this post, nor did I have any contact with Toyota or any other company in developing the content for this post. These statements are strictly my own professional opinion.


Daron said...

I agree that Toyota had built up a solid relational history with its owners. The question I have is how much of that comes under false pretenses - how many of those relationships were fostered while Toyota was "buying time" by not addressing problems they/their representatives knew existed?
I also think the SECOND recall, the one concerning Prius brakes, does a considerable amount more damage than just the first. After all, one occurrence can be explained away as an anomaly, but TWO in quick succession makes things seem much more sinister.
Frankly, I think this is a good thing for Toyota and other non-American auto makers, because it knocks them down a notch and will force them to re-evaluate their operation, hopefully making them better overall companies heading into the future.

Joshua A. DeLung said...

You are definitely correct. Toyota SHOULD rebound because of the reputation they had. However, if they squander it all away now with ineffective responses AND/OR we see more evidence that the relationship was fake all along, then they will have some big problems.

It's like if everyone found out that Microsoft ads were designed on Macs or if Whole Foods' CEO didn't believe in climate change. Oh, wait....