Expanded recalls continue damage to Toyota brand

TORRANCE, CA: As Toyota Motor Sales shifts into damage control, new research from Dow Jones Insight shows media coverage of the brand has taken a serious hit since the world's largest automaker recalled millions of vehicles.

TORRANCE, CA: As Toyota Motor Sales shifts into damage control, new research from Dow Jones Insight shows media coverage of the brand has taken a serious hit since the world's largest automaker recalled millions of vehicles.

Toyota announced a recall of several of its models on January 21 due to accelerator pedals that become stuck. It came on the heels of last year's recall regarding floor mats in some of Toyota's vehicles, which was also expanded last week. From August 3, 2009 to January 18, 2010—Toyota averaged about 67% in unfavorable media coverage each week. By the week of January 25 that figure had skyrocketed to 88%.

Mainstream and social media were measured in the analysis from Dow Jones Insight.

Automotive companies in general garner unfavorable media coverage, “but Toyota now leads the pack”, said Martin Murtland, managing director, Dow Jones Solutions for Communications Professionals. From January 31 to February 1, the top eight car manufacturers (excluding Toyota) averaged 56% in unfavorable coverage. Toyota, by comparison, had 91% unfavorable coverage.

“Their brand has been hurt very badly, and they have their work cut out for them,” Gene Grabowski, SVP, Levick Strategic Communications, told PRWeek. “It is not going to be easy. It took them more than 30 years to build that reputation of credibility and it took about a week to cut it in half.”

In a bid to undo some of that damage, Toyota Motor Sales USA president and CEO Jim Lentz spoke to numerous national media outlets yesterday, among them NBC's Today. Toyota also posted a video on YouTube in which Lentz “sincerely apologize[d] to Toyota owners” and said dealerships would extend their hours to repair the accelerator pedals in the recalled vehicles.

“His [appearances] have been a step in the right direction. He did everything that you're supposed to do in crisis communication. He apologized, advised that Toyota will do everything humanely possible to satisfy customers and prevent this catastrophe from happening again,” said Grabowski. “But this is something Toyota should have done last week. They put the cart before the horse by announcing the assembly shut down for these models last week and then going on TV this week. They should have done it in reverse to establish a platform of credibility.”

Toyota communication executive, Mike Michels, counters that the automaker's focus was justifiably on fixing the problem.

“There are a lot of factors that have made this an unusual case of having to announce both recalls before there was a fix determined,” Michels, VP, communications, Toyota Motor Sales USA, said in an e-mail to PRWeek. “But we did the right thing to pull floormats immediately, stop sales and stop production in advance of development of fix.”

“I think what's going to happen next is in the post-mortem [analysis of the recall] people will ask, ‘Could this have been avoided? Did they wait? Did they move quickly once they knew there was a problem?'” adds Chris Gidez, SVP, US director, risk management/crisis communications, Hill & Knowlton, said. “I am not the judge of that—that is for the media, regulators, and consumers to decide. But I think that is where we can expect this issue to go next.”

Toyota is working with existing roster agencies GolinHarris and Robinson Lerer & Montgomery on communications around the crisis, according to Michels.

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