What should Toyota do? Advice from the Ford-Firestone experience.

We were very fortunate to spend an hour and a half on a webinar this morning with Jon Harmon, author of the book Feeding Frenzy, and the crisis communicator in the middle of the Ford-Firestone crisis (for you young folks, this occurred in 2000). Jon’s phone was ringing away with reporters calling to ask him what he thought about Toyota’s problems with the huge recall and shut down of production–no doubt the biggest reputation challenge in the auto industry since the Ford-Firestone problems ten years ago (barring the meltdown of course). Jon will be interviewed on CNBC shortly, but you can get the scoop here.

I asked Jon during the Q&A session on this webinar what he would say to the CEO if he had a seat at the table of executives as he did at Ford. He said, “I would ask them first if they are doing enough? Are they doing all they can to protect the public? What about Lexus–they are keeping that out, but should they be looking at that too?” Then he said, “they should ask the question ‘what are people most worried about?’ and ask how we are addressing their concerns. We need to be clear about how we are addressing them.”

What struck me about Jon’s comments, clearly coming from the voice of experience, is how they well they mesh with the basic message about trust that we talk about all the time. Trust, we say, depends on two things: doing the right things, then communicating about them well. Jon is very right in advising that they first be concerned about the realities of protecting the public. No amount of posturing or spinning will compensate for decisions that don’t go to the fullest extent possible in addressing real safety concerns. But, if they are doing all those things, they need to be very aggressive and very clear about the actions they are taking. Jon talked about all the Twitter chatter and social media activity around Toyota and no doubt most of it is pretty ugly. I was interviewed by CNN Money a few days ago for my thoughts on Toyota’s reputation and I haven’t seen any of my comments showing up. They probably won’t because I did not quite see this as the blow to Toyota’s reputation that the current media hype is making it.  I related their reputation problems to a bigger issue of becoming the world’s largest and dominating auto manufacturer–an achievement that puts a huge target on them and certainly for the media as well as those who hate all things big and powerful. That is a more challenging issue long term for Toyota. However, the current spate of safety issues, recalls, accusations and negative reporting don’t help in that overall battle one bit.

I’ve asked Jon to contribute a guest post on crisisblogger and hopefully he’ll have time to do that. In the meantime, go out and get a copy of Feeding Frenzy.