Is Toyota's "fight back" strategy emerging?

As this story suggests, Toyota may be fighting the “black hat syndrome” by going after some of the news coverage that placed the black hat on the company. As I discuss in Now Is Too Late, this is a risky but sometimes essential strategy. In Toyota’s case, it is not very risky and I think not only essential but fully warranted.

Here’s are my biases on the whole Toyota crisis:

1) I have not been able to find verified facts anywhere that show that Toyota’s vehicles are not safe or that the issues raised even rise above the normal statistics related to repairs, fixes, and causes of accidents. Not saying they don’t exist or that if I spent more time I couldn’t find them, but the fact is despite all the ink spent and key strokes used on this issue, the facts are cloudy at best.

2) Despite the lack of visibility of the safety statistics, the crash stories have been sensationalized out of all proportion–and ABC and Brian Ross have been the worst at this. Why has no one dared to ask why a highway patrol officer driving with his family would take the time to use his cell phone to talk about an accelerator problem instead of taking the vehicle out of gear or shutting off the key? Sorry, there may be a good reason but the story has never made sense to me. And the photos of the Toyota upside down in a pond? I never saw an official investigation that showed it was related to a mechanical failure–just an assumption made based upon the news stories.

3) As Jon Harmon has mentioned in his book about the Ford-Firestone crisis, it is an unholy triumvirate of trial attorneys, sensation-seeking journalists and “white knight” politicians that truly drive stories like this. Toyota’s attacks against ABC bring the trial lawyers, their paid researchers and the “objectivity” of the news coverage squarely into question. We as citizens, especially as crisis communicators, need to be aware that this activity is common, completely predictable and will drive the story if you and your organization are involved.

4) If I am right in point 1, then Toyota’s actions in the massive recalls that they made, are quite possibly going above and beyond the facts–exactly what us crisis communication people would recommend. “dig through everything, if you see anything that looks like it could be a problem, deal with it now, don’t hide, don’t bleed out the bad stuff, tell it yourself and don’t wait for some discovery process to reveal it for you.” That is maybe just what they did. And if so, did they exacerbate the problem by being so proactive in the recalls? Certainly it looked bad. First accelerators, then brakes, then electronics, then the precious Prius. Maybe they were just following good crisis management advice and it ended up hurting them. Not sure, just asking the question.

5) The government’s role. I still think that the big story and center point of this huge reputation crisis is not about Toyota but about the credibility of the government as regulator and competitor. Ray LaHood’s public call to stop driving Toyota’s was the climax of the crisis. Toyota is right to not start fighting that–yet. But I think as the dust settles and the question of who is really wearing the black hat here starts to become a live question, the focus on this issue will start to be the role of government as regulator when it is financially invested in an industry. I am completely convinced that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be a player in a game and a referee at the same time. As long as the US is a player in Detroit, it has zero credibility as a regulator. Why that recognition has not come yet remains the biggest mystery of this big story.

The news cyclone–Time describes it perfectly

It’s tough to describe in a few words or even a brief article just what the change is in public information and news and what it means for those involved in it. You might expect that the best analysis or description of it would come from new media channels, but I find this description of the “news cyclone” from Time magazine one of the best I’ve ever read. Ironic, I suppose, that it comes from one of the true bastions of mainstream.

While the focus is on the Obama administration and how they are sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing at dealing with this new monster, the lessons apply to everyone with the risk of being in the center of the cyclone. It’s not a stream of information, it is a swirl, furious, intemperate, unpredictable. If I would quibble with the metaphor it is the the cyclone like a cycle goes in one direction. While losing the poetry, real events are like cyclones in cyclones with streams and flows at different speeds, with different destructive capabilities, and moving in many different directions at once.

The most important lesson for communicators–and one they must try and get their leaders to understand is this, the last paragraph of this article.

But the cyclone is the new reality, and respect must be paid. “You can’t really control it,” Pfeiffer says. “You’ve just got to sort of edge it in one direction or another.”

Behind the Scenes at the Austin Plane Crash–an exercise in virtual communication response

On the Frontline of a Virtual Communication Response—The Austin Plane Crash

For several in days in February the major news story was the crash of a small plane into a building in Austin, Texas. This is the kind of event that is discussed here on this blog all the time and I was fortunate to have a front row seat of sorts to the public communication and news coverage of this particular event.

The City of Austin, specifically the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is a new client having recently implemented our crisis communication system. While the agency’s website was set up on this platform and ready to roll, the agency’s PIO had little experience in working with the system. To make matters worse she, like several others from the office were in San Antonio for the Homeland Security conference.

I was sitting in a meeting in Houston when I was called out and informed that there was a plane crash into a building in Austin. The initial information we received, not from the City, was that the building may have housed FBI offices. The specter of a terrorist attack was immediately raised. We made contact with the PIO who was on her way back to Austin from San Antonio. We quickly informed her of the information that was being broadcast and that was coming via Twitter. She confirmed some of the information from her sources and we placed an initial statement on the City’s OEM website—from Houston.

For the next day and half we continued in almost continual contact and pushed out a total of nine information releases. Since the city staff were out of their offices and away from their normal tools and systems, they could not push the information to their normal media lists. But we quickly built an up-to-date media list of all Austin media and distributed the releases to them. These were in addition to the almost 400 contacts of Austin area agency contacts and other officials that had been built into the platform.

There were several times during the incident that we were able to report back through the PIO new information that was emerging on Twitter. This information would quickly find its way into the news coverage which had geared up with remarkable speed.

The various agencies from the City of Austin soon formed a Joint Information Center using the OEM site as the focus of new information. News reports began to reflect a coordinated flow of information from the City. Clearly the most significant communication came from the several press conferences held at the scene of the crash and fire. But the PIO was able to maintain the relevant information on the website by calling us from the press conference and we would quickly add and update the information on the site. Plus the agency was able to very quickly and efficiently distribute updates on the fast breaking situation to the media as well as to numerous agency leaders and others in the Austin community.

I say “we” because those involved in supporting Austin remotely during this event included Kevin Boxx, VP PIER Systems and Timothy O’Leary, my colleague at O’Briens’s Response Management. Direct support was also provided by Sandra Salazar, PIER’s Project Manager located in Houston who was at a different location than we were. Geoff Baron at PIER’s HQ in Bellingham, WA also provided direct assistance.

Some key learnings from this event:

-       Austin Police and Fire have received some strong kudos for their fast and effective crisis communication during this event—both from people within the community and from experts outside observing.

-       Virtual communication operation, or the Virtual JIC, does indeed work as has been demonstrated in other events. But this event was particularly telling because of the speed of information flow between the PIO and those on the scene and those operating remotely to keep the updates going.

-       Twitter and other social media are no doubt driving the information about an event of this nature. Reports coming from Twitter were almost concurrent with the event as some early “tweets” were from people witnessing the event as it occurred.

-       Major media use Twitter and other social media as primary sources of news. When you see “reports” or “eye witness reports” in the media coverage do not think it is that they have talked to someone directly but are likely getting it from the many tweets or posts on the internet.

-       The initial reports are virtually certain to be wrong—that is the nature of the internet and witnesses commenting from their perspective and speculating. But it is quite amazing to see how the online community sorts things out and gets to the facts faster than you would imagine.

-       Where it used to be that official sources would be the primary focus of the media’s interest a quick review of the media coverage will show that a primary interest of the media is to talk to eyewitnesses—often those same people who are reporting what they see or know (or speculations) via the internet.

-       PIOs and public officials have to scramble very, very hard to keep up with, let alone try to get ahead of, this kind of instant information coming from so many sources. As the official source of the news about the event, their primary role becomes rumor management—correct false information as it emerges—rather than focusing on being the first with the news.

Congratulations are due to Candice Wade and the team at Austin for a job well done in very difficult circumstances.

Questions rising about US government's role in Toyota attacks

Crisisblogger readers know that I have commented frequently on the inherent conflict of interest resulting from the Obama administration’s investment in GM and Chrysler. While clearly an unintended consequence, the result has been the perception of conflict in their role as regulator of the auto industry and participant in it. How can one competitor regulate another. I have been shocked and amazed that the US media, even the ant0-Obama conspiracy theorists in the media, have not picked up on this very serious problem.

But the conflict of interest is not escaping the Japanese and while Toyota has been apparently cautious in bringing this problem to light, Japanese papers are not. This article from Daily Dog reports that a conservative paper in Japan is raising the question whether or not the Obama administration is attacking Toyota to raise his approval ratings.

I don’t think I am being a conspiracy theorist to suggest there is a problem here. The truth is you can’t have a dog in the hunt and be seen as an objective arbiter of what is in the public interest. No one is that pure, objective and rationale. There is a very big dog in the hunt here for the administration in part because of the dependence on US union votes. Toyota’s problems are a god send to GM, if not an Obama send. When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood got way in front of the data by suggesting that Americans stop driving their Toyotas that over the top pronouncement really began looking like a politically motivated piling on.

From a crisis management standpoint, when you have the black hat on as Toyota clearly does, one of the most important strategies is to place it on someone else. In this case, the Obama administration by their investment in Detroit has given the beleaguered automaker an excellent target. And the best way possible is not for them to do it, but for those who stand behind them to do the finger pointing. It appears to be happening.

A Fire Chief asks: Does ICS stand for "Information Communications Standstill"?

I’ve know Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd for almost ten years–ever since we worked together on the Olympic Pipeline explosion, the event that got me into this crisis communication business. Since then I’ve not only come to respect him for his leadership skills and Incident Command capabilities, but for his deep and personal experience with managing information in this instant news/social media world. Bill was a Public Information Officer before he became chief, but more than that as Chief he has set some high standards for effective public information management including during the H1N1 crisis and the massive floods last year in the Pacific Northwest.

I asked Bill to speak Incident Commander to Incident Commander about the realities of today’s information environment. I hope advice, earned through hard experience, will be passed on to every Incident Commander, executive, fire chief, police chief and anyone else who will make decisions during a major event. (By the way, for those not familiar with ICS, it stands for Incident Command System, otherwise now known as NIMS or National Incident Management System. It requires Command approval of all information before release and consequently can substantially slow information distribution without taking Bill’s advice.)
Chief Bill Boyd:

Does ICS stand for “Information Communications Standstill”?

As I am typing this my Twitter monitoring site is logging messages by the second about the huge earthquake off the coast of Chile.  I am looking at pictures and comments from earthquake survivors, their relatives and others monitoring this disaster within seconds of being posted.  The speed and amount of information being disseminated right now is staggering, and I am contributing to this situation by relaying pertinent information to my followers through Facebook, Twitter and PIER Systems (which also posts immediately to my city’s internet news web site).

This unfolding and widespread crisis highlights the importance of strategic agility, speed and accuracy in disseminating information during a high visibility emergency event.  As a Fire Chief and Incident Commander for a regional incident management team, I recognize the need to immediately implement and use all available information tools and resources to push accurate information out to the public. How many of you with Incident Commander responsibility understand this?

The days of  a Public Information Officer (PIO) sitting down at a computer and generating a two paragraph media release a couple of times a day, and an interview here and there are gone.   If you still think this is all the PIO really has to do then you might as well give them an old typewriter and carbon paper. As an IC, I “define the box” the PIO will operate within (giving them the flexibility and boundaries to immediately release information without me having to approve it).  The IC needs to immediately set policy, validate key real time message concepts and then do the most important thing- let the PIO loose to do their job.  As an IC in this day and age, I can ill afford to get further behind the information dissemination curve (assuming we are already behind thanks to social media, camera cell phones, etc…).

This also means PIOs must be skilled in creating short messages, and relaying them in the most succinct way (how would you relay an evacuation order on Twitter?).  In the major events I have been involved with over the years, this type of messaging was not available.  Now, it is the preferred method of communication by many.  Yet, it remains foreign to many in the emergency response community.

IC’s need to wake up and realize the impact of the explosive growth of social media and the resulting expectation for immediate and accurate information.  If the public does not get it from Incident Command they will get it from somewhere else, relay inaccurate information and/or undermine your authority by venting their frustrations about lack of information.

Hey PIOs! How prepared are you in quickly shaping and distributing messages during a dynamic crisis event?  If you are still using the “media release” tool as your primary method of distributing information, I suggest signing up for a free social media site and see how people are really communicating news and information.  It is time for those of us with incident command authority to not only recognize the power of these tools and the resulting culture change, but more importantly take the steps to establish policy, secure training, and prepare to quickly deploy these tools during a crisis event.