Toyota testifies before congress about problems with its accelerator pedals, and winds up with a PR crisis on its hands.
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You can win in the courtroom, but the court of public opinion is another matter.

Think Tylenol.

Think O.J. Simpson.

O.J. was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her boyfriend, but who
do you know that thinks he’s innocent? The verdict doesn’t matter. People
think he killed them.

Tylenol was tampered with, and people died. But, Tylenol still enjoys a very
positive and favorable public image and perception. Why? Actions and a long-
term, sustained marketing and advertising strategy.   


Toyota has enjoyed a solid reputation for half a century. Toyota produced
quality, durable vehicles that outlasted and outperformed what Detroit was

Toyota is taking the right steps to minimize a negative situation involving the
accelerator pedals on some of its vehicles, but it needs to follow the Tylenol
P.R. example and do it soon.

Toyota’s president has personally apologized and stated that his company is
committed to fixing the problem. The company and many of its dealers are
working overtime to repair the affected cars. Its officials did not balk at
appearing before a congressional committee looking into the matter.

So far, so good. The right actions and the right words to start minimizing a
very negative public relations situation. Actions can often speak louder than
words in a crisis communications matter.

But, there are now questions about when Toyota first identified the problem,
and what it did or didn’t do. There are also images of a woman crying as she
testified before congress about how a stuck accelerator on a Toyota led to a
fatal car crash involving her family. These questions and the images have the
potential to create a very long-lasting toxic situation.  


When the Tylenol tampering scare occurred in 1982, the company issued a
total and complete product recall. At considerable financial loss, it pulled
every single bottle off the shelves. It also immediately launched a massive p.
r. campaign using news coverage and advertising, to alert people to the
situation and carefully point out it was taking action to correct it. Once the new
tamper-proof/resistant containers were ready to go, Tylenol went back on the
shelves, and a massive, new p.r. strategy kicked into high gear.

That p.r. strategy continues today. 30 years later. The Insider saw a Tylenol
commercial on TV the other day, where an actress portraying a Tylenol
production supervisor was saying “if people weren’t going to follow the
instructions, she’d prefer they didn’t take Tylenol at all“.

Think about that. The commercial didn’t talk about how Tylenol is best at
relieving pain (why we take it). It talked about using it according to the
directions or please don‘t use it. This kind of long-term sustained marketing
and advertising strategy is why Tylenol can still be found in millions of
household medicine cabinets across America, even though it was once
tampered with, and people died.


Toyota needs to take a page from the Tylenol playbook. Toyota needs to kick
off a major marketing and advertising print, radio, TV, and web strategy
covering several basic points:

That it has a long history of quality
That it understands it’s lost some of the public’s trust
That it understands rebuilding that trust will take time
What it’s doing to remedy the situation, and make people’s cars safe again  
Who or where people can call if they’re concerned about their Toyota

Toyota has already started doing this, but it’s not nearly enough and Toyota
needs to seriously ramp up the effort very soon. The Insider simply isn't
seeing or hearing enough about this, and other people are saying the same
thing when the subject comes up. That's an indication that there isn't enough
public awareness about the actions Toyota is taking. The public's perception
is the public's reality, and the perception is running against Toyota right now.


Toyota could also pull off a social media coup, if the car maker uses it

Most organizations make the mistake of using social media as a one-way
communication tool. Social media is about two-way conversations. It’s about
engaging aned listening to your customers, not selling to them.

There are some people that will use social media to simply post vicious,
unsubstantiated claims and attacks. That's human nature and The Insider will
discuss a strategy it uses that's been very effective at minimizing these types
of attacks in an upcoming issue. However, Toyota can still use social media to
engage disaffected customers, address their concerns, and follow up with
action. This would be a serious demonstration of a commitment to customer
service, addressing legitimate concerns, and the power of social media when
used correctly.

Most organizations in this type of situation make a big mistake. They post
videos from top corporate officials on Youtube, thinking they’re engaging
disaffected customers and a wary public. It doesn’t work for them, and it won’t
work for Toyota. It won‘t work for you, should you find yourself in the middle of
a product recall… even on a smaller scale. Toyota will have to seriously
engage in the two-way conversation.

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Toyota: The Next Tylenol or O.J.?
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