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Why Toyota Cannot Beat the Unintended Acceleration Rap

Updated September 11, 2013

Toyota Motors is making the news again, but it isn’t just for their recent agreement with BMW to build electric vehicles and fuel cells together. Rather, the Japanese automaker is once again forced to deal with problems of unintended acceleration, an issue that first surfaced in 2009, exposing a safety issue that led to accounts of serious injuries and death in numerous accidents.

PR Problems

The unintended acceleration rap is a hard one for Toyota to beat and is likely to haunt one of the world’s largest manufacturers of passenger vehicles for years to come. Toyota’s problem isn’t just with engineering, rather it is an institutional one as an insular management continues to misunderstand the importance of getting ahead of the car recall news story.

Let’s take a look at the Toyota case and what the automaker can do about it, but only if it listens.

1. Accept that they have a problem. Early on, Toyota was in denial about its sticky accelerator problem. The company insisted that it was driver error, that somehow its floor mats got stuck under accelerators causing involved vehicles to suddenly gain speed. A fiery crash in California in August 2009 killing four people occurred months, perhaps years after unintended acceleration reports first came in.

The company is now faced with defending itself in lawsuits and will likely be forced to settle at a great cost to its prestige and profitability.

2. Respond quickly and with professionalism. Toyota’s pubic relations department effectively collapsed when its recall problems began to dominate the news in fall 2009. On Twitter, its representatives didn’t seem to know how to respond to the criticism, and the automaker quickly allowed others to run with the story.

If your people don’t shape the news, then others will. That doesn’t mean manipulating a story, rather ensuring that the company’s viewpoint is articulated and disseminated.

3. Place key people in public accessible positions. In recent years, Toyota has seen its public relations people leave for greener pastures. That isn’t a surprise given how the company’s initial reaction to its crisis was handled. Toyota, however, has been slow to replace its people, many of whom were not trained to handle its problems. The company has made its U.S. president, Jim Lentz, more available to respond to problems and in June it hired Julie A. Hamp as its chief communications officer for North America.

Hemp will have to expand and retrain her staff to speak with one voice and to respond effectively. Twitter was a disaster for Toyota in 2009 and 2010 as the company’s PR staff stood by silently. Silence can be taken for guilt, while a clear and cohesive message can demonstrate care and show an effective response.

4. Anticipate problems and be prepared to react. There has been good news for Toyota in recent months including its recovery from the 2011 earthquake, the continued strong sales of its Prius line and recent agreements with companies such as BMW show that it is willing to partner with the best to remain at the top. But, the floor mat issue has returned with additional vehicles now being recalled. How quickly they respond to get ahead of the news curve will tell us whether the automaker has learned its lesson or whether its PR people are still allowing others to shape the news.

Toyota has closed the perception gap in recent years by offering free maintenance across its product line for the first two years or 25,000 miles, whichever comes first. Its STAR safety system also shows that its new cars make the safety grade, while its models routinely finish on top of most consumer quality surveys.

Perceptions, Reality

Customer perceptions are not always indicative of what is really happening. Still, unless you’re out there helping to shape the news, you may be allowing a problem to spiral out of control. Toyota can beat the unintended acceleration rap, but only if it recognizes what the problem is and how to deliver an effective solution.

Matt Keegan is an automotive writer for Auto Trends Magazine, an online publication that reports on auto industry development and news.



Calvin Escobar
About Calvin Escobar

The Car scene is so diverse Where I come from, most enthusiasts recognize the amazing engineering (particularly the engines). The bulk of the ridicule originates from the manner in which many of the vehicles are modded/maintained. Thus, the jokes and or hate tends to be aimed more at the owner rather than the machine. All of which makes seeing properly sorted old Toyota's and Hondas at car meets, auto shows, and track days all the more refreshing.

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