Someday, how Toyota has handled its vehicle acceleration crisis will make an interesting case study.
As I suspect is the case with a lot of people, I haven’t paid close attention the company’s recalls. Mainly, I’ve heard bits and pieces. And therein lies a big part of the company’s image problem: Regardless of what Toyota is doing now, what people remember most are news stories about occupants who died or were injured while their cars careened out of control.
One reported incident is particularly memorable to me: A frantic 911 call from a police officer saying the brakes on his Lexus didn’t work. While still talking with the operator, he and his passengers went over an embankment and their vehicle burst into flames. The call ended with the passengers telling each other to pray.
Whatever exculpatory facts may exist in Toyota’s favor, and no matter how many ads the company runs demonstrating concern, the mental image of people dying in cars they couldn’t stop is impossible to overcome.
Adding to the company’s woes, the Associated Press today reported that for years Toyota has blocked access to data stored in the vehicles themselves. This data, which is stored in devices similar to the “black boxes” used on airplanes, could provide useful information about crashes that were blamed on sudden unintended accelerations.
When there is an appearance of a cover up by a company involved in a crisis, especially when lives have been lost, the negative perceptions can be devastating.
Toyota has long had a reputation for quality, and my reliable old Corolla was one of the best vehicles I’ve ever owned. But as things stand now, I would never buy a Toyota product again.
Ad agencies advising clients embroiled in a crisis need to remember that the best ads and PR efforts to communicate what the company is doing to fix the problem and make amends will ring hollow if it doesn’t back up words with deeds.
Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.