Earlier this week, I moderated an interactive crisis management workshop on behalf of PRSA Charlotte. We explored top crisis management observations from 2010 and then held an interactive discussion on BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster and on the Toyota recalls. (These links provide you with summary points shared with the PRSA members.)
We ran short on time and needed to truncate an important part of the Toyota recall case. The quick summary raised a few eyebrows in the room and we didn’t have time to explore some of the media sensationalism felt by Toyota. As a promise made to those members and as interesting reading for the rest, I’d like to summarize that here:
- By early February, there were swelling reports that “unintended acceleration” was occuring in some Toyota models. Some believed this was caused by software. This led to some sensational media coverage, leaving Toyota owners believing in “ghosts in the machine.”
- On Feb. 22, ABC News’ chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, aired a segment where he interviewed David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University. Here’s the segment:
- Commenters on YouTube and on some message boards began to analyze some of the footage used in the ABC News piece, and believed that some of the report was staged. This was covered in a report by Gawker on Mar. 5.
- On Mar. 8, through webcast and press release, Toyota fought back and addressed some other problems with the report. One of the problems was technical. The vehicle’s electronics were reengineered by Gilbert in a sequence virtually impossible to recreate in the real world. This was validated by tests conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research.
- Auto-industry blog Jalopnik covered the story the same day with more technical analysis and its report included this callout:
“As engineers, we can rewire anything, but that’s not realistic. Automakers shouldn’t be forced to design for events that won’t happen in nature,” said Center for Automotive Research at Stanford.
- The other problem released by Toyota was about ethics and media disclosure. Don’t miss this callout (I bolded key part for emphasis):
As revealed in their testimony before Congress, Professor Gilbert’s Preliminary Report was commissioned by Sean Kane, a paid advocate for trial lawyers involved in litigation against Toyota and other automakers. Mr. Kane also appeared on the ABC News broadcast in support of the claim that Professor Gilbert’s demonstration revealed a flaw in the electronic throttle control system that could lead to “runaway” Toyota and Lexus vehicles. The relationship between Mr. Kane, Professor Gilbert and the trial lawyers who support Mr. Kane’s advocacy was not revealed by ABC News during the newscast, nor was Toyota offered an opportunity to view the demonstration or given time to respond.
It is now evident that a class-action lawsuit will proceed against Toyota from owners angry about the bad publicity leading to value loss on their cars.
In light of the events summarized above, shouldn’t ABC News or Brian Ross shoulder some of this burden?
As always, your thoughts are welcome below.
Dec. 15 Update: Crisisblogger Gerald Baron provided his thoughts on the reputation resilience of Toyota earlier today. Here’s the link. Also note that I’m adding Gerald’s blog to my “Other Helpful Links” on the right side of the page because Gerald’s is consistently one of the more credible voices out there on crisis management.