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.