And another thing...

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Crisis Communications – The Ugly, The Bad, And The Good

You mark my words. Sooner or later, Toyota will admit that the acceleration problem they are having with their cars is much more than a floor mat problem. Then over the following several months, we will hear about evidence that shows the company knew about “these other” problems for years.

And even if I’m wrong, the fact that I (and most American consumers) would probably bet that I’m right, is indicative of a crisis communications strategy that is about as bad as it gets. By breaking some of the most fundamental rules regarding crisis PR, Toyota has destroyed any sense of the trust that they’ve built up over the past couple of decades. And each day it just gets worse.

Here are some of the rules that Toyota apparently continues to ignore:

Rule 1. Be up front and honest.
Rule 2. Be quick to admit mistakes – it’s better that you reveal them yourself then have someone else do it.
Rule 3. Show sincere concern for those harmed and those that may be harmed in the future.
Rule 4. Lay out a viable strategy for setting things right.

The New York Times reported that there is evidence Toyota knew about some of the most recent problems back in 2007 or earlier. And now, instead of admitting their mistakes, it appears that the Japanese company is trying to minimize the extent of the problem – blaming it on floor mats..even when there is strong evidence to the contrary.

To reduce public concern, the company quickly put out ads telling Americans that Toyota made a mistake and is now refocused on quality control. Sorry guys. Too little, too late. You provide no specifics to what the problem was or how you are correcting it. You do not address the inordinant amount of time it took to reveal these problems or how you are addressing internal issues to prevent this from happening again.

And still the reports of runaway cars continue to make headlines.

Of course, the company’s current crisis communications plan is the result of executive decisions to reduce the impact on sales. In the meantime, the law suites and recalls will certainly add up to be one of the biggest and most expensive blunders in automotive history. Yet, the company continues to portray, what seems to be, indifference to its customers and greater concern for its own bottom line. Not good.

As far as the bad and the good…While not as ugly as Toyota, Tiger Woods didn’t do so well with his crisis communications either. He did finally hold a press conference and spoke honestly about what led up to his crisis. Unfortunately, it was another case of too little, too late. He did outline a strategy for fixing the problem (off to the sex clinic) and in time, his fans may actually forgive him and the endorsements may return.

As for the good, I’m reminded of a corporate crisis that came across my desk over a decade ago. Turned out that the largest personal printer manufacturer in the world was selling a printer that could kill you! That’s right. If you put your finger in the right place at the right time, you would receive a shock that was bigger than the one you’d get when you saw how much you’d be spending on printer ink cartridges.

As soon as the problem was discovered, a meeting was held to determine the proper course of action. While the implications for damage to immediate sales were not good, the right decisions were made:

1. An immediate recall of all effected printers
2. A halt in production until the design was corrected
3. A proactive communications strategy.

That’s right. Even though no one had yet died (or was even harmed) from the printer, it was the company’s own PR staff that first alerted the press (and subsequently, the public) to the problem. The potential danger was, if anything, exaggerated rather than minimized. A strong course of action was outlined…and in the end, the company received more press for its quick action than for the original problem.

The ugly, the bad, and the good.

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Brad Lee Brenner is a master blogger, radio host and founder of Brenner Associates, a public relations / communications firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon. Over the past thirty years, Brad has written hundreds of articles that have been published in trade journals, newspapers and online news sources. His focus of expertise includes technology, the medical industry and communications for the digital age.