'We're going to get you now!'

Eight months after Toyota's recall, Scott Brownlee, the company's PR chief in the UK, reflects on how the brand has bounced back. Claire Murphy reports.

Brownlee: embraced Twitter
Brownlee: embraced Twitter

On the wall in Scott Brownlee's office is a framed Daily Mail front page headlined with the words of US transportation secretary Ray LaHood: 'Don't drive your Toyota!'

It was that moment in February, days into the global media whirlwind surrounding Toyota's safety recalls, that Brownlee recalls as the lowest point. 'For our target market, the Daily Mail is the most influential publication. It doesn't get any worse than a headline like that.' The fact that LaHood partially retracted the statement later was ultimately irrelevant.

The drama started for Brownlee while he was in a meeting with colleagues from marketing, planning the company's fledgling social media strategy: 'Our technical director was called out urgently and we knew something serious was happening.'

Brownlee's media strategy was always to attempt to make a globally complex and fast-moving story of relevance to UK current and prospective customers. This was complicated by the fact that stories were breaking in Japan and the US.

Often this meant that problems emerged in the US, but Brownlee had to wait for answers to emerge from Japan. 'We were stuck in the middle. I honestly don't think there was too much we could have done differently, but I think that the story could have been contained quicker if we'd been quicker in our answers,' he says.

In the UK, the company scrambled to set up a process for staying on top of the breaking story and its responses, organising three meetings a day with representatives from all departments. Brownlee toured TV and radio studios, accelerator pedal in hand, to explain the problem and how it would be fixed.

The story swiftly dominated global news, largely because of an audio recording of a terrified passenger in a Toyota that would shortly crash, apparently because of a stuck accelerator, killing its occupants. In the UK, the story was complicated because some issues arose on models that were not on sale in the UK, or the problems did not apply to UK cars. Brownlee and his team were taken aback by the number of stories that the media were copying from each other without fact-checking with Toyota - apparently to fit in with the predominant narrative of corporate incompetence.

'The BBC appealed on its news website for the public to send in experiences of the recall,' says Brownlee. 'I know for certain that some people sent in positive stories but they weren't used.'

The media melee was so intense that PROs in at least one other car company told Brownlee they were using it as an ongoing crisis training exercise.

Toyota's media audience was split into two camps. Motoring journalists were largely supportive, recognising that the recall was far from unusual. The business and regular news journalists covering the story were less familiar, both with recalls and with the technical detail, and Brownlee and his team spent time briefing them. One newspaper journalist, known to the team previously only for his requests for test drives, shocked Brownlee by telling him, 'right, we're going to get you now!' before an interview.

Twitter was a valuable tool for Brownlee to broadcast his responses to stories and publicise the latest developments, as well as to counter adverse online chat about the company. In the wake of the saga, the digital team was switched from the marketing department to Brownlee's team because it was recognised that messages had to be co-ordinated with PR.

For all Brownlee's complaints about sloppy journalism, he is philosophical about the nature of the media process. He recognises that pressures on editorial budgets mean there are fewer, overworked journalists. But he reserves particular fury for the politicians he believes pursued their own agendas throughout the recall story. He cites LaHood's statement and the way that CEO Akio Toyoda was questioned by the US House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In this, he feels some kinship with BP.

'I don't know the detail of what BP was responsible for, but I feel very sorry for them in that they became a political football. It is very difficult to respond in a robust way to an elected official. Is it right for them to attack corporates when it suits their purposes?'

So, how has the recall affected Toyota's UK reputation? Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders gave the brand a 4.2 per cent market share in July, down slightly from 4.8 per cent in the same month a year previously. Actual sales, however, were above the budget set well before the recall - a good result in a still difficult market, says Brownlee.

Visible targets A tale of two leaders

The Toyota story illustrated two issues that affect the decision to field CEOs and MDs as spokespeople in a crisis.

First, their media performance must be faultless if they are not to become the magnet for all criticism. Second, local cultural norms can complicate a leader's delivery style in a global crisis.

Toyota UK managing director Miguel Fonseca gave radio and TV interviews straight off a flight from Japan that had arrived at 5am on 5 February. He gave heavily technical explanations of the recalls and, in the majority of cases, was on the back foot with journalists. Brownlee accepts that Fonseca did not understand 'that you only have 30 seconds to make a reassuring statement'.

'He's hugely passionate and has a great depth of understanding of technical issues, but realises his performance wasn't as good as it could have been.' After that day, Brownlee arranged for Fonseca, who started his career in PR, to make statements for broadcast on YouTube.

Brownlee recognises that Fonseca's media performance affected public trust in the company - 'we received letters from people saying they had lost confidence after seeing him on TV' - but is sanguine about his MD's role: 'You don't hire TV presenters to run a major business.'

Criticism of Fonseca's boss, CEO Akio Toyoda, was more widespread. Toyoda was knocked for failing to make a statement in the first few days after the story broke and then being filmed getting into an Audi after reading a statement at the World Economic Forum at Davos.

His performance in front of the US Senate hearings into the recall was criticised in the US for being too controlled and not sufficiently contrite. But his subsequent appearance at a public meeting of US Toyota dealers was criticised in Japan because Toyoda showed emotion at the support he received from them. 'In Japan this was seen as showing weakness,' observes Brownlee.

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