Toyota has a hard time saying 'sorry'

Image problems over recalls will persist until company shows it's focused on a fix.

Toyota once had an unimpeachable image, a reputation in consumer surveys that outranked Ikea, Johnson & Johnson and even Google. But now, after recalling close to eight million cars, including the top-selling Corolla and RAV4, closing plants and suspending sales, that image is badly battered. And experts in crisis communications warn there will be no quick repair. “Toyota may want to think they’re at the bottom and it’s all up from here, but this may drag on for a long time,” says Jon Harmon, who was Ford Truck’s public relations chief in 2000 when rollovers forced Firestone to recall tires made for the company’s vehicles.

Ford’s woes were front-page news for nearly 13 months. However long Toyota’s troubles last, the company’s shoddy initial response has made things worse. “It has quickly become the poster boy for how not to communicate in a crisis,” says Barry McLoughlin, an Ottawa consultant.

Toyota recalled 5.35 million vehicles last September, citing concerns that accelerator pedals could become stuck under floor mats. The company denied problems with the accelerator itself but in January recalled 4.5 million vehicles (many were part of the earlier recall) due to concerns with the actual pedals. Making it worse, Toyota waited three days before its executives offered interviews or apologies. “[Toyota] didn’t appear to get out of bed, let alone race to a microphone to tell people their views,” says McLoughlin. And even after that, the bad news kept coming, with complaints about the braking system on Prius hybrids and allegations Toyota knew about the defects for nearly a year.

Toyota’s sluggish response suggests lawyers, not PR experts, are handling its communications, says Harmon. “Lawyers don’t want to broaden your culpability, and they don’t want you to apologize,” he says. “But you’ve got to win back trust by communicating early, often and consistently. And generally, that means going far beyond what your lawyers will insist.” Toyota did finally apologize when company president Akio Toyoda held a press conference in early February. But even then, he failed to offer the long, deep bow said to signify true contrition in Japanese culture. “The secret and the trick is to give an honest, heartfelt apology,” says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, Ky. “You have to take responsibility for what went wrong and then say how you’re going to fix it.”

The second step for Toyota will be engaging its customers using all available means – including automotive blogs, websites and traditional media. “They can’t lecture at this point. Now they have to join the conversation,” says Gene Grabowski, senior vice-president of Levick Strategic Communications.

Toyota’s long-standing reputation for quality means it will likely recover, just like others have in the past. Johnson & Johnson’s quick response to deaths from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in 1982 is a standard in crisis management. In Canada, Maple Leaf Foods quickly returned to profitability after listeria in its products killed more than 20 people. And the Ford Explorer had record sales just months after the rollover issue left the headlines. “North Americans have a long track record of forgiving if a company has done something wrong and somebody takes responsibility for it,” says Smith.