Car giant Toyota slammed for 'easygoing' attitude to recall crisis

Toyota has come under sustained fire from crisis experts for its global response to the brand crisis that has seen millions of cars recalled worldwide.

'Easygoing attitude': Toyota's crisis response
'Easygoing attitude': Toyota's crisis response

The company's crisis communications team has been criticised by a leading Japanese PR executive over its ‘easygoing attitude'.

Another PR agency head in Asia said that Toyota's slow and poorly co-ordinated response could spell the ‘beginning of the end for old-style Japanese PR'.

The comments come as Toyota prepares to recall hundreds of thousands of its flagship Prius hybrid cars because of a potentially dangerous brake defect.

The carmaker has already recalled eight million cars worldwide because of accelerator problems.

Weber Shandwick Japan CEO Akihiko Kubo pointed out that crisis management in Japan remains hampered by a poor understanding of the role of PR.

Kubo said that the traditional Japanese corporate preference for either working with ad agencies, or handling matters in-house, has had devastating consequences.

‘This does not come out in a normal situation but in an emergency like this, it's the client who has to pay the bill for an easygoing attitude,' said Kubo. ‘Also, Japanese corporations tend to manage PR in-house. This is another factor why they have a limited objective perspective, resulting in a slow reactive attitude.'

While Toyota has reportedly hired Robinson Lerer & Montgomery to provide crisis counsel in the US, it is understood that efforts elsewhere are being handled in-house.

The company's UK comms chief Scott Brownlee confirmed to PRWeek that it would not be seeking external crisis advice in Europe. Brownlee has been a highly visible presence in the UK media, to mixed reviews.

Toyota has been criticised for a slow response that has placed the company on the back foot throughout the unfolding crisis. Global CEO Akio Toyoda has attracted particular attention for his low profile. Toyoda emerged last week to express contrition, two weeks after the crisis broke.

‘There has been silence for some time on this,' said Edelman international director of crisis and issues management Mike Seymour. ‘The Japanese are greatly inclined to want to wait until they have got all the facts. I'm surprised they aren't taking a global view of their communications.'

Senior Toyota executives have released explanatory videos in the US and the UK. Last week, industry observers told PRWeek that while its UK video struck the right tone, the response may be too late.

The company's social media efforts do appear, however, to have improved attitudes. According to Waggener Edstrom's Twendz tool, positive sentiment towards the company on Twitter had improved from 13 per cent of tweets on the 5 February, to 20 per cent today.

Negative sentiment also dropped from 29 per cent to 27 per cent over the same period.

‘It has never seemed that Toyota has ever managed to get ahead of the issue in terms of its communications – it has been incredibly reactive,' said Bite global CEO Clive Armitage. ‘The upshot of this is that trust in the Toyota brand is being massively eroded and it will take a huge effort to rebuild this trust over the coming years.'

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