Toyota's Congress comments point to practiced comms strategy

WASHINGTON: Toyota's appearance at a series of Congressional hearings this week has already resulted in some much anticipated testimony, with industry insiders pointing to a practiced communications strategy to groom the automaker's top two executives testifying.

WASHINGTON: Toyota's appearance at a series of Congressional hearings this week has already resulted in some much anticipated testimony, with industry insiders pointing to a practiced communications strategy in grooming the automaker's top two executives.

Japanese-born CEO Akio Toyoda is set to answer questions Wednesday, February 24, regarding acceleration issues that have led to the recall of more than eight million vehicles worldwide. The company's US president, James Lentz, stood before a Congressional committee Tuesday.

Jesse Toprak, analyst for TrueCar.com, said the first round of comments from the hearings look promising for the automaker.

“They covered their bases in these opening remarks,” Toprak said. “In situations like this, there's not really an upside for the defending party. But Toyota, so far in these hearings, has taken ownership of these problems.”

In his hearing Tuesday, Lentz apologized for the safety issues, citing mechanical issues as reason for the faulty cars.

“We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize for them and we have learned from them,” he said. “We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators.”

Toprak said that admission will go a long way to appeasing US consumers.

“If this were a domestic company like Ford, within an hour we would expect the CEO to have issued a statement of apology. That's just not how business works in Japan,” Toprak said. “The biggest prep work will have been in educating Toyoda on how to respond to questions, how to own the problem, and how to apologize.”

Michael Kehs, Washington GM and head of US public affairs for Hill & Knowlton, said Toyoda has likely been immersed in briefings and preparation for the questioning. H&K does some client work with competitor automaker Ford, though Kehs does not work with that account.

“There has been a lot of media reporting that there are a number of agencies working with Toyota, and I can assure you, he's receiving tremendous counsel,” Kehs said. “The statements will have been rehearsed, Q&A's will have been drawn up. This will be extremely practiced.”

To date, Toyota has employed five PR agencies to help with communications around the crisis: Glover Park Group, Quinn Gillespie & Associates, Powell Tate, Robinson Lerer & Montgomery, and GolinHarris. However, a representative from Quinn Gillespie confirmed media reports from this week that it is no longer working with Toyota.

Kehs said Toyoda will have been coached not only on issues relating to the recall, but also on body language and behavior.

“He'll be absolutely respectful of the committee and the legitimate concerns they're expressing, and their authority to do so,” Kehs said. “[Toyoda] is a gentleman that enjoys immense respect in his country, and he may find a different story here.”

A prepared copy of Toyoda's opening statements was released to the press Tuesday afternoon, with the CEO pointing to company growth as one possible reason for the recalls. Toyota did not return calls seeking comment for this story in time for publication.

“We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that,” Toyoda said in the written statement. “I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced.”

The testimony pointed to a brief, apologetic tone, which Kehs said is a purposeful strategy.

“The team will try to have him be as brief as possible. He'll have to have some clear statements that he is working cooperatively to address consumer safety,” Kehs said. “Toyota's legal team will be watching very closely at statements that may involve any fault on the company's part. When you're talking about a company with such high investor interest, you're not going to hear a lot of admission of fault.”

Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of automotive Web site Edmunds.com, agreed that Toyoda should avoid addressing company fault in the hearings, and instead focus on a commitment to future diligence.

“Toyota will have to express that they're open to consumer input on improvements that can be made to models, and prove their intent to ensure future safety of their drivers,” he said. “In the 80s, these types of issues hit Audi hard, and it took them 20 years to recover. Toyota will be looking to avoid that type of reputation.”

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