The 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer is out and once again, it doesn’t look so good for public trust. Suffice it to say, public trust is down from last year, and the US is again a third or fourth world country when it comes to public trust.
But I won’t take the time to analyze why. Not when the news today provides such a compelling example of why we have a crisis of trust in this country. To avoid repeating myself, here’s what I posted on Emergency Management:
Toyota must be feeling relieved and exonerated after a month’s long study by the US government including NASA (NASA?–don’t they have other things to do?) showed that the much publicized accelerator problems were not what people (lawyers and the media mostly) said they were.
I have to admit to feeling some exoneration as well. I blogged quite frequently about the Toyota problems which I felt were much over-hyped by the media. The worst in my mind though was the role the US government played in the media attacks–the low point coming with Sec of Transportation LaHood saying that the only place people should drive their Toyotas was to the repair shop–or something like that.
Now, he is the one announcing the government’s non-findings. I want to know where the apology to Toyota is. His statements were completely out of line and how can one not think they were motivated by the fact that the US taxpayer, under the leadership of LaHood’s boss, had invested heavily in GM, Toyota’s main competition. I for one am grateful that GM is doing great and on the road to health. But I would not feel so great about it if I thought that the bully pulpit of the position of chief regulator of transportation had been abused to protect that investment.
My concern here is not just Toyota, but what has been a clear message of animosity to business and industry in the past few years. The heaping of outrage on BP from the position of the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, a structure supposed to provide pure, non-political response information was one thing. But the ante was upped by EPA’s non-collaboration and treatment of Enbridge in the Michigan spill. Then recent activities by BOEMRE, the replacement to the much-maligned (by the administration) MMS, indicates that it is their policy to be very aggressive in communicating not just a watchdog position against industry, but a junkyard dog position.
This does not bode well for crisis communication for any industry that is regulated. Watch out–the political winds are such that winning politically means throwing you under the bus at any and every opportunity. It is precisely this kind of treatment (of BP in particular) that led the Economist to comment that the administration is striking a very strong anti-business tone. I do believe that the mid-terms have modified that, but the underlying instinct I’m quite certain, remains strong.
But the other important lesson from the Toyota “crisis” is media treatment. I read about the exoneration of Toyota from the LA Times Breaking News email alert. So I went back to the LA Times to see what they said about the accelerator problem. This article, from last November, is exactly the problem.
Note first the headline:”Data Points to Toyota’s Throttles, Not Floor Mats.”
I want to ask what data, whose data? Where are they getting this data? But does the story answer that? But, instead of presenting the hard facts like the headline suggests, the story starts feature-story like with a heart-wrenching victim story. The poor victim removed his mats but the truck still sped up uncontrollably and now the truck is useless to him. Five paragraphs into the story we get to the data:
But accounts from motorists such as Weiss, interviews with auto safety experts and a Times review of thousands of federal traffic safety incident reports all point to another potential cause: the electronic throttles that have replaced mechanical systems in recent years.
“Thousands of incident reports.” What were those NASA scientists doing? Ignoring the data? Who could not conclude reading the LA Times story that Toyota was not completely guilty. Not only of building bad cars with out of control accelerators, but hiding the evidence from the public. That is the story line and who is to doubt the LA Times, New York Times, CNN and all the rest.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that the recalls that Toyota issued were not valid. I am saying that the news media hyped the problem, came to conclusions, assigned blame and then stood back and looked at the wreckage. I don’t see any mea culpas coming from them based on today’s report.
I’m also saying that Secretary LaHood owes Toyota an apology for the statement he made about driving Toyotas to the repair garage. He not only heaped public scorn and outrage on a company that is looking more and more like the victim, he put at risk the credibility of the federal government as a fair, unbiased and responsible regulator of transportation.
The media’s approach to covering news today has resulted in the lowest trust ratings of any industry–including big oil. Trust in government is at an all time low. Those in media and government need to understand that it is these things that ultimately and unnecessarily end up hurting public trust. Let alone companies like Toyota.