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NASA has given Toyota a clean bill of health regarding any blame for glitches in electronic control systems, in relations to claims about thousands of cases of unintended acceleration by Toyota vehicles. Now, the blame seems to rest with either floor mats that got tangled with gas pedals, or with sticking gas pedals, or with the broad category of “driver error.” I’m no technician, but my bet now is as it was when I first blogged about a likely cause of many of these incidents last June (see post at http://wp.me/pI64m-e1) — “driver error.”

I think the size, placement and angle of brake and accelerator pedals, together with the vagaries of shoe or boot size and shape, foot and leg physical issues with drivers, or of driver skill, experience and even mental state could be potential factors in many of these accidents, and together present a set of safety issues that require much more study, engineering and consumer education, to say the least.

My own experience is that different cars seems to have different configurations of pedals and space beneath the dash (increased need for standardization?), which can confuse the feet. Also, tired or numbness in feet or limbs or forms of driver disorientation or distraction might be factors leading to misapplication of brake or accelerator. Having once taught driver education instructors for Allstate Insurance Company, and having also been a public relations executive for Toyota years ago, I don’t recall much in the way of safety studies or driver education practices regarding use of pedals. Some people use one foot for both pedals, some use both, and some switch off. Did anyone ever teach you what kinds of footwear to use when driving, or to check under the dash to be sure your mat is well-placed and fitted or how to keep your legs from getting stiff or numb when driving?

If work has been done on these under-dash standardization, safety issues and consumer education, I’ve seen little to none of it, even after these many incidents and the high profile they’ve been given in the press. Isn’t it about time the auto manufacturers, dealers, insurers, safety organizations, consumer groups, schools and government do a lot more to reduce the chances of “driver error” in acceleration and braking, and better communicate to the public about the issues and ideas, before more lives are needlessly lost?

Seems a flurry of safety recalls of cars known for reliability are not Toyota’s biggest problem. What is? Not building enough auto manufacturing plants in the U.S. and elsewhere outside of Japan.

The continuing strength of the yen against the dollar and other currencies is making it more expensive for Toyota to export its cars, and that is costing it both profits at home and sales abroad. The implication: look for Toyota to become even more of a globalized brand, if that is even conceivable. Toyota already has 4 U.S. plants and some 160,000 employees at these and its U.S. dealers. Perhaps that is only a beginning?

N.Y. Times — BUSINESS | September 03, 2010
Toyota Feels Exchange-Rate Pinch as Rivals Gain
By HIROKO TABUCHI
For all the turmoil over Toyota’s wave of recalls, the world’s largest automaker may face a bigger problem: the surging yen.

Toyota is now concluding that at least some of the 2000 reported cases of unintended acceleration by their cars have been proven to be driver error. Here’s the story: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE66D0FR20100714.

As a driver, I had an experience in a rented car outside the Charlotte Airport that made me wonder. It was a foreign car, can’t recall the make, that I’d just rented on arrival. As I left the airport and drove a few blocks, I was alarmed that the car was slowing down when I wanted to go, then would barely move away from a green light. I pulled over into a gas station, and was about to return the hobbled car when I discovered the problem. The gas and brake pedals were closer together than I was used to, and my foot was pressing both at the same time, sometimes rocking toward the brake and sometimes the gas. The inconsistent placement or size of these pedals, compared with what I was used to, was the real problem. Once I realized this, I adjusted and drove off normally.

Could the placement or size of the pedals sometimes be the real problem in unintended acceleration? Does the size or shape of one’s shoe or angle of pressure based on leg length or physique factor in? Is this all already taken into consideration by the engineers and sufficiently accommodated, or if not, should standards be set or drivers be educated or warned about the differences? I wonder…

By Dexter Ford, on a NYT website: “I asked Bob Zeinstra, the national manager of advertising and strategic planning for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., to clarify the claim. “The $1,000,000 an hour claim represents all Toyota R&D spending globally, much of that allocated to new quality and safety technologies,” he said in an e-mail message.

“So Toyota is counting every dollar it spends, worldwide, on research and development, whether the effort has anything to do with safety or not. Sona Iliffe-Moon, a Toyota spokeswoman, declined to estimate the proportion devoted specifically to safety.”

Wonder what the word for hyperbole is in Japanese”

This ton of lawsuits will keep Toyota’s recalls in the news for a very long time.

“For the Japanese auto maker, which declined to comment for this story, billions of dollars in legal liability could be at stake as it fights suits tied to its recalls of vehicles because of sudden-acceleration issues.

“The lawyers’ quest is a pot of as much as $500 million in fees. Only a few will share it.

“More than 100 lawyers have filed more than 75 federal civil suits. Most of them aim to hold Toyota responsible for a drop in the resale value of its vehicles.”

by Dionne Searcey

via In Fight Over Toyota Suits, Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Pull Out All the Stops – Law Blog – WSJ.

There is a lesson for all high profile corporations and organizations about adopting mottos, bywords and marketing slogans, thanks to the trevails of BP and Toyota this year.

While such slogans are often aspirational or directional. it’s clear that the rhetoric can far outreach reality, and the adage about the danger of getting too far ahead of the market is underscored. On the other hand, we all know how hard it is to always keep our promises, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

So I guess my advice to organizations in this regard is: be prepared for cynicism in the face of your aspirations and promises, and be prepared to live with it, or don’t make the promise or adopt the aspiration in the first place.

Following is from CNNmoney.com today.

BP loses $32 billion in value on spill

By Paul R. La Monica, editor at large May 4, 2010: 1:23 PM ET

The Buzz is now on Twitter! Follow me @LaMonicaBuzz

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Oil giant BP has a marketing slogan dubbed “Beyond Petroleum.” If only that were true. That ad campaign has to rank up there with Toyota’s “Moving Forward” motto as the most unintentionally hilarious of the year.

via The Buzz: BP may keep falling due to bad PR from oil spill – May. 4, 2010.

My Monday morning opinions on 3 major ongoing crises in public relationships:

1. Sexual abuses in the Catholic Church: Today’s reports say the Vatican is rapidly at work updating their 2001 policies on dealing with and preventing sexual abuse by priests. A one-page summary of that update was just published. This, perhaps, is a beginning in the sort of substantial change to Church policy and practice that is needed before improvements in perception by the public can be expected. With more than 4,000 confirmed child abuse cases by Catholic priests in the U.S. alone over the past 50 years, representing abuse of minors by as much as 5% of the clergy, there is a lot of change needed. Before Catholic communicators can be held accountable for improved perceptions, deep and continued real changes, along with its symbolic counterpoints, will be needed.

2. Toyota accelerator recall: Yesterday’s NY Times shocked the PR world with the revelation, through internal Toyota emails, that the long time, well-regarded head of U.S. PR for Toyota warned Toyota leadership that “the game is up” 5 days before they agreed to significant recalls. He was responding to an email from another Toyota executive urging spokespeople to keep quiet about the issue. Not surprisingly, he has since “retired.” Media reports also indicate that NHTSA is also considering additional fines against Toyota related to the tardy recalls, after they assessed against Toyota the largest fine ever levied on an automaker last week. If Toyota objects to such fines, they will be further dragged through the media mill. Meanwhile NASA heps search for the technological culprits.

3. Tiger Woods redemption: The host of Morning Joe this am characterized Tiger as a “punk” in terms of his demeanor through and in the aftermath of yesterday’s Augusta Master’s Tournament. He didn’t just lose the tournament (came in 4th), but he lost the opportunity to redeem himself to his fans by not demonstrating more appreciation for their patience with him, despite the barrage of moral cheapness he has forced them to endure. His most significant pronouncement through the game was that his performance “sucked.” He had nothing to say when it was over. Compared with tournament winner Mikelson, who shed tears not over his triumph, but out of empathy for his wife leaving her hospital bed to join him at the finish, Woods came off like so much arrogant trash. A little grasiousness would have gone a long way. Guess he doesn’t have it in him. I can’t believe his sponsorships will not further suffer.

From today’s PRNewser: Will it ever end for Toyota? The car manufacturer faces more damaging news this week, as it was revealed its top U.S. PR executive, Irv Miller, warned the company needed to “come clean” about mechanical problems that could trigger sudden acceleration in its cars.

“We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over,” said Miller in an email obtained by the Detroit Free Press. Miller has since retired from Toyota.

Toyota issued a statement regarding the email:

While Toyota does not comment on internal company communications and cannot comment on Mr. Miller’s email, we have publicly acknowledged on several occasions that the company did a poor job of communicating during the period preceding our recent recalls. We have subsequently taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters to ensure that this does not happen again.
Just a few weeks ago Toyota was on the offensive, asking ABC News for a retraction and apology regarding its faulty reporting on the recall. Now, the company is back on the defensive.

In a PRNewser poll this past February, 59% percent of respondents said Toyota was handling the recall “horribly” from a communications perspective.

A slew of special deals drove Toyota sales up 41% in March, after a 13.4% drop over the first two months of 2010.

The following story ran in today’s Peoria Journal Star newspaper after a teleconference I did yesterday with PR undergrads studying crisis communications at Bradley University’s Global Communications Center, in a program led by Bradley’s Dr. Ron Koperski.
P.R. veteran: Toyota mishandled recall – Peoria, IL – pjstar.com
Source: pjstar.com

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.

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