The public relations challenge currently being faced by Toyota is perhaps the greatest one faced by a major corporation since the Tylenol catastrophe in 1982. But while Johnson & Johnson deservedly received rave reviews for its forthright and expeditious handling of their situation, I have been far less impressed with Toyota’s response to date. In particular, I don’t think they’re giving the public the sense that they’re moving as quickly as possible to fix the cars on the road, or that they’re passionately determined to discover and address whatever flaws in their manufacturing processes allowed these problems to occur in the first place.
I give Toyota USA president Jim Lentz good marks for making himself available to the media, but low marks for his performance in front of the cameras. He comes across as a nice, mild-mannered, slightly nervous guy, and I don’t think that’s what consumers want to see. I think they want to see a leader with a passionate sense of urgency. Imagine how Lee Iococca–in his prime–would have handled this. I’m pretty certain he would have left viewers thinking, “Wow! There’s going to be hell to pay at Toyota until every single problem has been fixed, and I don’t think we have to worry about this situation ever happening again!”
In much of his Today Show interview with Matt Lauer, Mr. Lentz came across as a politician who had been coached–as he surely was–to not give any direct answers. While I realize that he has to be careful of what he says for legal reasons, that’s hardly an approach likely to build trust with your audience. What’s worse, in other parts of the interview he ignored this coaching and made self-incriminating statements without appearing to realize it. For example, he acknowledged that Toyota had known about one problem since October, but he didn’t go on to say what they’ve been doing to address the situation since then. As a result, he left the viewer with the (presumably inaccurate) feeling that Toyota simply ignored the problem–and put its customers at risk–for several months.
On February 5, Toyota uploaded a video to YouTube showing Mr. Lentz at a Toyota dealership announcing that repair parts are now being delivered to service departments. There are several problems with this piece. First, Mr. Lentz looks very unnatural walking through the service area, awkwardly gesturing repeatedly with his left hand like he’s dribbling an invisible basketball. Second, behind Mr. Lentz we see dozens of Toyota cars being repaired for unrelated problems, which doesn’t exactly reinforce the notion of Toyota’s high quality. And third, the video ends with a repairman making a repair to a faulty accelerator pedal. Inexplicably, there’s no narrator to explain what he’s doing, and he looks rather unsure of himself as he installs a part that presumably will correct the problem. It would be nice if there were a straightforward, impressive “before and after” demonstration, but there isn’t. In fact, I was left wondering, “Is that the fix? Seriously?”
Don’t get me wrong; Toyota is in a no-win situation, and it’s going to be difficult for them to look good no matter what they do. But an effective public relations effort can minimize the damage currently being self-inflicted upon the brand equity they’ve worked so hard to build over the past several decades. Unfortunately, the quality of their damage control is not much better than the apparent quality of their accelerator pedals.