Looking Backward, Moving Forward

Consider these events:

  • Reports begin to surface of “sudden acceleration” from one auto manufacturer, including heartbreaking video/audio of fatal incidents
  • Media coverage of the situation is sometimes sensational, adding to public concerns about “runaway cars”
  • Plaintiffs’ lawyers swarm and advertise to collect testimony of anyone involved in an accident in these cars
  • “Experts” like the Center for Auto Safety weigh in on the situation, confirming the public’s fears about the safety of those cars
  • Government officials get involved, publicly skewer the auto maker, and then order studies to determine the sources of the problem
  • Months later, after reputational damage is done, fines are issued and legal verdicts and settlements are paid – studies begin to show that “driver error” is likely in most of the car accidents
  • As the legal basis for “sudden acceleration” weakens, other owners and plaintiffs lawyers seek compensation for lost resale value

If you’re older than age 40, this all might sound doubly familiar.  Each of the events above apply to both the Audi 5000 situation back in 1986, and the Toyota recall of 2009-2010

This is not to suggest the automobiles were perfect. 

In Audi’s case, the gas pedal and brake may have been slightly closer than U.S. drivers were accustomed, leading to “pedal misapplication.”  However, there was no fault found in the fuel injection system. 

With Toyota, there may have been sticky gas pedals and floor mats that jammed those pedals.  However, according to reports yesterday, no electronic defects have been found and, according to The Wall Street Journal, (subscription required)  “driver error” was confirmed for 35 of the 58 vehicles that were tested.   Key rip-quotes:

Five months into an investigation of safety issues involving Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles, U.S. safety officials have yet to identify any new defects beyond those reported by the car maker itself.

And in more than half of the crashes blamed on sudden acceleration analyzed by the government, data from the vehicles’ “black boxes” show the driver was not stepping on the brake at the time of the accident—indicating that driver error may have been at fault….


Experts at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration examined 58 vehicles involved in sudden-acceleration reports and found data in 35 of them showed the brakes weren’t applied at the time of the crash. Data from nine other vehicles showed the brakes were used only in the last moment before impact.

The report doesn’t specify driver error as a cause of unintended acceleration, although people familiar with the investigation have said the findings point to pedal misapplication—mistakenly hitting the gas instead of the brakes—as a likely cause….


Although it does not appear in his works, Mark Twain is often attributed with the quote:  “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” 


I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

QUICK PLUG – please remember to click the “Ask” graphic on the right to submit any question for the “Ask the crisis manager” or “Ask the communications coach” blog features.  All questions considered!

Aug. 11 update:  Added WSJ rip quotes, to help those that don’t have an online subscription.   Also, interesting story from The New York Post, and a related article that appeared in Forbes, which explain that the NHTSA database is really just a collection of anecdotes about accidents.

8 thoughts on “Looking Backward, Moving Forward”

  1. As mentioned previously, the rush to jump into prescribed PR responses is potentially dangerous when all the facts aren't known. In the case of Toyota, the dozens of crisis experts weighing months ago — most saying Toyota should apologize — are now silent.

    The more I see this — we're witnessing a similar dynamic at play now with HP — the more I am convinced PR advice, as we commonly know it, is potentially dangerous for vulnerable organizations.

    Good post, James.

    1. Agree generally with your first paragraph, Bob. Disagree vehemently with the second if you're speaking about commissioned PR advice. (If you're speaking about unsolicited PR punditry, I agree.)

      PR advice is critical when it comes from counselors with a firm understanding of the business, regulatory, legal and ethical implications. In addtion, these good counselors must work closely with the C-suite to be effective, not the PR/Marketing contacts only.

      Thanks for participating here, as always.

  2. As a gearhead, I’ve followed this saga with keen interest and I even have some experience with the Audi fiasco, as my dad had a 5000 in a sickly shade of green at the time. The parallels between the Toyota and Audi cases are, as you pointed out, striking, as in both cases the hysteria driven by an over-zealous media while the blame was ultimately placed on driver error.

    There’s one thing that bothers me, though, and Toyota is the latest example: companies seem to be afraid of the public, to the point where the mea culpas begin immediately before even some cursory background investigation is done. I realize organizations have to be contrite when faced with a reputational crisis, but the pendulum seems to have swung so far to one side that I can’t imagine it’s good for anyone in the long run. I can’t say that I have a solution to this, but one of these days, an organization will have to stand up for itself if it feels wronged. The only question is which organization will have the intestinal fortitude to do so?

    1. From what I can see, I think Toyota is trying to do this in the courts, first. And, slowly, in their public response. "Blame the customer" is a tough strategy to employ, unless a lot of (time-consuming) research can be done to validate that stance.

      Thanks for participating!

  3. This is a really tough challenge. How to avoid looking like you are "blaming the driver" when in fact the driver IS to blame. There has been a lot of analysis of the AUDI case and it is clear that in the end the company was almost as much blamed for blaming the driver as it was blamed for alleged motor vehicle deficiencies. Leaving aside the rights and wrings of the current Toyota situation I would love to hear what people think is the best way forward when the customer really is wrong (and of course I am talking here about substantial, life and death cases, not just the customer servce triviality).
    I read somewhere that it took Audi 2 years to recover its position in the US market. In the case of Toyota they recently announced a 27% increse in quarterly profit, thought that is global and not just US. So much for all the armchair experts who opined that the company would not survive

    1. I have a VHS copy of that old Audi profile, "Out of Control," done by 60 Minutes. Sadly, I can't find it online anywhere. When you see it, you'll see exactly why the public's reaction to Audi was negative. I believe their two spokespeople were both lawyers (unsure if it was internal or external counsel). Key quote: "We're not saying there's anything wrong with the cars. There IS nothing wrong with the cars." And: "People are so confident they have their foot on the brake, they keep pressing it."

      Although the second statement proved true, the first one wasn't. The pedals were closer together than U.S. drivers were accustomed. We examine this case often in workshops and participants nearly universally agree that Audi should have been shown some level of "we'll tirelessly keep investigating this." Toyota did that, in my view.

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