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Toyota’s continuing PR crisis, today highlighted by news leads on a run-away Prius, is not running out of media space. It could be “accelerating,” to use a touchy word. As Toyota unveils its latest buyer incentives, today’s news story has gotten coverage equal to the infamy of recent weeks. I don’t recall seeing the term “Continuity Crisis Communications” used before, but Toyota is sorely in need of a communications plan that factors in a crisis that promises to keep reemerging, not for a few days or weeks, but perhaps for months, or even years.

They will be in need of “Continuity Crisis Communications,” the term I just coined, even if they do finally get to the engineering issue(s) that cause run-away acceleration in some cars of some models. Thanks to potential incidents with cars not adequately fixed (among millions out there), law suits over everything from deaths to lost vehicle value, and financial repercussions that could impact Toyota long-term, this crisis may never quite go away. While news media may tire, and be distracted elsewhere, as they inevitably do, this combination of mega and micro incidents and issues may plague Toyota long-term. Conventional PR tactics may prove insufficient to manage Toyota’s reputation, and the reputational fallout may go on and on.

In terms of public relations strategies and tactics, Toyota will need to stay focused on the customer, taking care of their needs and problems, borrowing whatever empathy they can for support in fixing problems akin to a cancer that won’t seem to go away, and keeps emerging, and challenging the best care and technology available.

Toyota needs to enlist the public as allies in solving the kind of problems that seem unfair and to have come out of nowhere. Patience, determination, professionalism and an unwillingness to surrender to the foibles of technology must be engendered in Toyota’s “publics,” from employees and dealers, to customers and families, to NGOs and governments. Yes, Toyota is a victim too, and needs support and time to re-instill their great tradition of quality, reliability, value and above all, safety. That is Toyota’s long-term PR challenge.

As Jerry Lewis might say on his telethon, “the cure is out there and getting closer every day, if we all work together to find it.” PR can’t make up for actions, but PR can explain and build empathy for the actions being taken.

March 2010

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