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When a company faces crisis, it gains a forum to bolster or damage the brand. Its actions and behavior as well as how it communicates those actions and behavior determine the impact.

We’ve created this page as a resource for communication professionals and students to examine Toyota’s approach to communications during its recall crisis.

As an experiment, we're going to serve as a curator for the page, adding and subtracting information as the situation plays out.

If you have ideas or content for the page, by all means send them to us

The Hoffman Agency

Toyota’s Controlled Communications During Recall Crisis

It’s interesting to contrast Toyota's initial letter to customers with its second customer letter.

Given the radical change in words and spirit in the second letter, it seems fair to conclude that legal did not have the final say in the second go-around.

You can see a breakdown of all four Toyota letters in the following posts which ran on Ishmael’s Corner.

toyota recall pr

Open Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole
February 03, 2010 | Lou Hoffman

You know the Toyota debacle has reached a new low when it snares Steve Wozniak.

And Woz’s issue isn’t even with the sticking gas pedal (the darn cruise control was malfunctioning).

I think it’s fair to say the timing for this celebrity endorsement isn’t ideal.

To ensure the “we-care” message reaches the masses, Toyota crafted a letter to customers that ran in major dailies and its Web site. After watching Bridgestone/Firestone take a public flogging years ago when management took the denial path, Toyota decided to address the issue head on.

So far so good.

But the who the hell is writing this stuff?

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toyota recall communications

Toyota’s Second Letter to Customers Stays on the Road
February 06, 2010 | Lou Hoffman

I skewered Toyota earlier in the week in the post “Open Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole.”

Instead of addressing the issue head on, Toyota started the letter harking back to its 50-year heritage.

The narrative went downhill from there.

I don’t think Toyota was particularly proud of the letter either given it’s no longer on the web site (although it does show up in the image library).

I’m convinced every crisis reaches a fork in the road in which a company must make a choice on who’s leading the charge, legal or common sense.

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Of course, Toyota needs to communicate to all of its stakeholders - customers, employees, investors, government officials, dealerships, etc. - which requires more than running letters in major newspapers.

Other Takes on Toyota’s Crisis PR

A Crisis Made in Japan - February 5, 2010: Jeff Kingston, who is director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, shows the power of long-form journalism in a piece that looks at the issue from a cultural and societal perspective.

Toyota Woes: Staring into the Abyss - February 5, 2010: Telegraph reporters out of Tokyo and London tag-team on a story that focuses on Toyota President Akio Toyoda and his role in the PR nightmare.

Toyota’s Low-risk Dialogue on Digg - February 8, 2010: Fortune reporter Jon Fortt explains that making Toyota U.S. President Jim Lentz available for a Q&A on Digg isn’t exactly like facing Morley Safer on “60 Minutes.”

Toyota’s PR Problem Endemic Throughout Asia - February 9, 2010: David Wolf, who heads his own consultancy, offers a perspective that comes from 15 years of working and living in Asia. “In all that time I have never had cause to discard my initial impression of Asian firms as almost utterly incapable of anything but the most planned, scripted, stilted and disconnected communications, suited for an age long past, and incapable of protecting themselves when the wolves come howling.” Did I mention he’s not afraid to speak his mind?

Toyota Should Have Accelerated Response - February 10, 2010: The San Francisco Chronicle piece kicks off, “It’s going to take a mighty powerful hose to wash off the mud that’s soiled Toyota’s reputation, according to experts on crisis communication.” Buford Barr, marketing and communications lecturer at Santa Clara University, weighs in with his perspective.

The Machine That Ran Too Hot - February 25, 2010: The Economist does its usual thorough job in pinpointing Toyota’s supply chain as the root cause of the recall.

Toyota, Looking for Positive Spin, Turns to Twitter - March 2, 2010:  This LA Times blog post talks about a Toyota-built channel called “Toyota Conversations” which depends on Tweetmeme to publish real-time tweets. To its credit, Toyota doesn't filter out negative tweets.

The Wrong Lessons From Toyota’s Recalls - March 4, 2010: In this Harvard Business Review post, U of Michigan professor Jeffrey Liker chastises the Monday morning quarterbacks like ourselves and even The Economist (see above) for faulty assertions.

Does Media Coverage of Toyota Recalls Reflect Reality? - March 9, 2010: Here’s another Havard Business Review article, this one highlighting research that makes the case that Toyota’s equity in the karma bank has kept customer perceptions positive in contrast to the media coverage.

How Not to Salvage a Reputation, at BP and Beyond - June 24, 2010: The world has moved on to the next high-profile crisis, namely the BP oil rig explosion. This Financial Times column from John Gapper makes a number of cogent points that could just as easily be applied to Toyota. I thought the importance of gaining experience in interacting with the media before a crisis hits certainly has relevance to both companies.

CNBC Interviews Toyota
March 16, 2010

cnbc toyota interview
Questions fall under the “softball” category,
but company deserves credit for proactively
telling its story.

toyota crisis communications
Toyota TV Commercial Addresses Recall
February 6, 2010
Toyota President Interviewed on Digg
February 9, 2010
toyota recall interview
toyota president pr
Toyota Global President Pens Op-Ed
February 9, 2010

toyota logo pr

Crisis PR: Third Letter from Toyota Falls Flat
February 11, 2010 | Lou Hoffman

Customer letter No. 3 from Toyota arrived on the scene today.

Like the previous two - analyzed in “Open Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole” and “Toyota’s Second Letter to Customers Stays on the Road,” this letter was published in major dailies and on the company’s Web site.

Unfortunately, the third time was not a charm for Toyota.

The headline offers a promising start: “Toyota’s Pledge To You.”

But before going further, let me ask you a question. If someone says I’m making a pledge to you, what do you expect to follow?


You expect to learn about the actual content of this pledge.

Not Toyota.

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toyota op-ed
Op-Ed from Toyota Global President
In The Wall Sreet Journal

February 23, 2010
toyota recall usa today
Op-Ed from Toyota U.S.A. President in USA Today
February 15, 2010
toyota recall commercial
Second Toyota TV Commercial Addresses Recall
March 2, 2010
toyota recall communications
Toyota Conversations Channel

toyota logo pr

Toyota Crisis PR: Customer Letter No. 4 Loses Its Way
March 3, 2010 | Lou Hoffman

When it comes to a crisis, everyone tends to fixate on the “bad press.”

I think it’s more revealing to zero in on the communications controlled by the offending company.

How are they telling their story within their control?

That’s why I find the Toyota open letters to customers so fascinating.

Just because you control the words doesn’t mean you get the story right.

Playing backseat driver, I’ve weighed in on the three letters.

In aggregate, the letters haven’t been very good, which unfortunately also describes the fourth called “Our Commitment to Customers.”

The first line sets the tone ...

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