Scott Brownlee, Toyota: How to weather the storm

Social media tools were essential weapons in Toyota's arsenal as it defended its safety record.

When the front page headline of the Daily Mail declares 'Don't drive your Toyota', you are at the centre of a potentially catastrophic storm.

In February last year, Toyota found itself in alien territory: our safety and quality record was being challenged after claims of accidents and fatalities caused by 'unintended acceleration' in vehicles sold in the US.

Previously unknown but highly quotable US politicians quickly gained global coverage, not least in the UK where the common language added momentum to the story.

Ostensibly this was a technical issue that required a prompt and effective fix. But beyond the matter of an unprecedented recall of millions of its vehicles, Toyota was witnessing fundamental elements of its brand being brought into question.

Here in the UK, Toyota faced tough media questioning that demanded a 24/7 response. Regardless of whether we felt the attacks were justified, or the journalists' research questionable, we had to consider a bigger question: how could we protect our public reputation, not just with our established customers but also with those people who would be less inclined to consider buying a Toyota as a result of what they were seeing and hearing?

The crisis came at an early stage in our development of social media tools. Mike Valvo, our PR manager at the time, and I were already using Twitter, principally for quick and easy interaction with the UK's digital media-savvy motoring journalists and bloggers. We also had a small-scale Toyota blog, which until that point was reaching out to a narrow band of our customer base and brand enthusiasts.

Immediately the value of these new tools became apparent. We were able to promptly rebut some of the wilder claims being made, to reassure the public and to back up the co-ordinated key messages that I and my colleagues in senior management and the press office team were broadcasting to the traditional media. We could - and did - respond to serious allegations within minutes, posting rebuttals and third-party endorsements online. We used social tools such as Twitter to put across our side of the story to media and consumers alike.

The flip side of this new, fast-acting comms channel was the access it gave us to virtually instant analysis of online sentiment. Print and TV were saying one thing - and traditional media analysis tools would have painted a black picture eventually - but we could track public sentiment across blogs and forums and use that intelligence to plan our next move. This analysis was fed into the twice-daily operations group that determined our strategy, be it newspaper ads carrying letters from the MD, YouTube videos showing the repair, or briefings to dealers on the likely attitude of customers.

According to our monitoring, customer sentiment returned to pre- crisis levels within three months and, as the media latched on to any negative Toyota story they could find, the negative impact with the public was less marked each time.

In short, monitoring online sentiment gave us visibility and confidence to act quickly and decisively in the centre of the storm. Eighteen months earlier we would have been blind.

We have since invested in our social media strategy, extending its content and reach and providing a lively and engaging forum for questions and debate. Those same channels that helped us fight a negative are now helping to build on the positives that come with exciting new products, all for an ROI that is off the scale compared with traditional marketing.


What are the essential elements of content that is 'liked' on Facebook?

Surprise and delight. Something that catches the viewer by surprise and offers a quick smile is the most likely to be shared. Anything that requires preamble or justifying will lose out.

How can a corporate website become a media channel?

Seamless integration. Easy to write, very hard to achieve. At Toyota and Lexus we're committed to applying universal navigation - common navigation bar across corporate site and social sites. For the user it will seem like one big site but with all the functionality and sharing that social spaces offer.

Scott Brownlee is general manager, press and public affairs at Toyota

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