Toyota–reputation disaster or just a blip?

It’s the end of the year and all kinds of PR pundits have been making their list of the worst PR blunders. On the ones I’ve seen Toyota is near the top of the list–BP usually tops them. Which raises the question to me if reputation disasters are what they used to be.

Daily Dog, as I’ve commented before, tends to hype the PR crisis of those covered in its stories. The headline today about Toyota: “As Toyota’s Dark Year Winds Up, Analysts Say Recall Fallout is Likely to Linger: Crisis-Weakened Automaker’s Troubles are “Far From Over” — Even Though New Survey Says Consumers Still Rank Toyota Highest.

To the headline writer’s credit, the positive element of the story is mentioned which is a little unusual. But, the conflict between the oft-repeated story of the the disaster that befell the company this year with the confidence the consumers continue to show in this company raises the question about the nature of today’s reputation disasters. The Dog story says: Despite all that PR trauma, a new survey from Kelley Blue Book ranks Toyota as the most-considered brand among new-car shoppers. A total of 25 percent of those surveyed say the automaker is their top pick when shopping. Coming in a very close second with 24 percent is Ford, followed just behind at 23 percent by Honda.

There is no question that Toyota was significantly impacted by all the negative press, the series of recalls, the Congressional hearings, the suggestions by the Transportation Secretary that no one should buy Toyotas, etc. But, as bad as it looked from the press story and from the analysis of the PR pundits, the question was how could the company even survive. Toyota has not only survived but it has regained its top spot with consumers. That is remarkable.

I will admit to being skeptical of the reality behind Toyota’s problems all along. I felt it was another example of the media overhyping problems, and then, with heightened scrutiny other issues that normally would not come to this level of attention were suddenly big deals. And I was very concerned about the conflict of interest of the administration owning one of  Toyota’s biggest competitors and being both competitor and watchdog. Here’s what I wrote on Feb 22:

Well, I don’t believe the reality is there. I think this is what happens often when things go bad. Additional scrutiny causes additional problems and things pile up. Now the media-shy chairman is preparing to face a highly skeptical and go-for-the-throat Congress. Secretly I wish that Mr. Toyoda would ask the members of Congress this question: How can you be credible as watchdog of the public interest when you have a dog in the hunt? How can the American public take you seriously when your president has more to gain from your problems than anyone else on earth?

I’m not the only crisis consultant who felt there was a substantial amount of media overreaching on this issue. Here is James Donnelly’s post on the topic.

I spoke at the PRSA International Conference on reputation resilience, applying some of the basic ideas about how people and organizations survive disasters to the issues of reputation crises. The goal of resilience is to return to “normal.” Normal is in quotation marks because after a major disaster the new normal is often very different. While there may be a bit of a new normal for Toyota, it looks quite a bit from the outside like the old normal. I suspect inside it is a different story.

But, Toyota in my mind is demonstrating reputation resilience and that I think is the more significant story than how damaging the recall disaster was for them. If there is a case study written on Toyota, it ought to be focused on how a reputation built over many years plus a company culture that has the solid qualities needed to survive enabled a major brand to limit the damage from today’s media and political onslaught.

The truth is our media environment and overheated political discourse makes for a difficult environment for reputation protection. But the other side of it may be that the public instinctively understands it and doesn’t take all the accusations and heightened scrutiny as seriously as we tend to think.

3 thoughts on “Toyota–reputation disaster or just a blip?”

  1. When all the facts are out we will know better whether the accidents and deaths were overemphazieds by MSM hype. What is interesting is how the car buying public will undertake to analyze the rather remote risks involved in the TOYOTA situation. My guess is that the return of high gas prices, the expensive nature of the auto generally, and the economic downturn will perhaps have long term impacts. Personally, I believe that the almost automatic annual sales figures for US auto sales, often exceeding 15M, are gone for good. Now the entire industry awaits the entry of CHINA into the US domestic sales picture.

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