PR Experts Weigh In on Toyota Debacle

Recall, anyone? We’ve started to see the television commercials and we know Congress is getting involved. But I wanted to find out what my peers in the industry think. After all, they’re the ones we really have something to learn from. So this morning I sent this query via Profnet:

As the PR blogger for, I’d like to give readers a chance to hear from several PR experts in one place. Please give me your best piece of advice for Toyota (one line, if possible) in terms of this most recent publicity nightmare. Please include how you’d like to be identified in the blog (including links).

As you can imagine, I’ve heard from a lot of people. Here’s what they shared:

“Where its customers are concerned, they need to communicate, communicate, communicate. They waited too long to reach out one-one-one, initially (12 days ). Moving forward, they need to do so early and often, informing, educating and reassuring.”

–Don Tanner, TannerFriedman

“Unfortunately, too many CEOs continue to listen to and get bad advice from their lawyers instead of their PR counsel.  Lawyers want to win in a court of law and the PR counsel wants a win in the court of public opinion.All Toyota had to do was follow the basic common sense rules of 1) accepting responsibility, 2) admitting fault, 3) telling the truth and 4) getting it all out as quickly as possible.  Once any important information is withheld, a company loses the trust and support of the customer and the public.”

Rene Henry

“Toyota must be 100% apologetic, 100% expeditious, and 100% sure the new fix is safe.”

— Michael Caudill, Auto Expert & Spokesperson, NADAguides

“From an ethics point of view, I think the best approach is to put themselves in their customers’ shoes and do for their customers what they want done for them.”

–Renita Coleman, a Johnson Legacy Scholar at the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication

“ . . .The fact is—they said “quality” for years and then forgot the word when it was most important.”

–Richard Laermer, RLM PR

“Spend this year fixing your cars.  2.  Spend the next five years fixing your image (that’s about the length of most extended warranties).”

–Jill Z. McBride, JZMcBride and Associates

“Keep focused on the primary issue. Deal with it openly.  Be as transparent as possible.  Do not try to shift the conversation to another topic; that only looks like you’re skirting the issue.  Don’t expect the problem to resolve overnight.  View your PR and damage control response as an ongoing effort.  As you do resolve these issues, let the public and the media know, but in a respectful and unassuming manner.  Stay in front of the story.  If you are continually in a reactive mode, you’re in trouble.” 

–Anthony Mora, president and CEO of Anthony Mora Communications, Inc.

“Toyota’s CEO continues to delegate the task of reassuring American consumers on TV and at congressional hearings next week, which violates the fundamentals of crisis communications: Respond immediately, be clear and transparent, be accountable, and make sure the CEO is front and center. How can Toyota make the same mistakes as Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and even Tiger Woods? As the great American philosopher, George Santayana, said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ “

 —Ken Makovsky, CEO of Makovsky Company

“Toyota needs to point to the future and how a few years from now this will be just a blip on the screen as the brand will emerge from this present crisis with its reputation for safety and excellence in manufacturing intact and even stronger from this experience.”

–Thomas J. Madden, chairman & CEO of Madden Company Inc., dba TransMedia Group

“Toyota should hire a team to turn social media upside down with information – email, texting, twitter, blogs, Facebook, YouTube because Toyota owners are begging for it (I own a Lexus myself not on the recall list because it is an older model).”

–Susan Tellem, Partner, Tellem Worldwide, Inc. 

“Local Toyota dealerships should have a dedicated customer service team which returns calls within the hour, is responsive to complaints, tries to accommodate individual needs and allay fears, including providing loaner cars to the extent possible  Dealerships should be on the phone reaching out to their customers, one to one. The brand may be in trouble but nurturing those customer relationships is what will put an individual dealership on the road to recovery.”

–Jamie Moss, newsPRos

“Communicate, though actions, that consumer safety is its number one concern.” 

  —Sharif Ebrahim, Kearns & West, Inc.

“They should have reached out to their stakeholders: partners, customers, dealers, first — and then gone with the open letter, saying something like this:

‘We aim for innovation. What we don’t aim for is for anyone to be put in danger — or even potentially put in danger. Ever. While we are doing our best to correct the problems and looking at all potential sources, we sincerely regret that our loyal customers were ever in this situation.’   By saying, “in this situation” they are vague enough to avoid the language that would send their attorneys into conniptions, but yet they still convey the larger — and necessary, commonsense — messages of innovation, loyalty, sincere regret.”

–Merredith Branscombe, The Hoffman Agency

“One line? How about one word:  ‘Transparency’“

Andy Abramson, CEO Comunicano, Inc.

Many thanks to those who took the time to send me their thoughts. Next time: another round of what PR experts are saying about Toyota…