A case analysis of the
company’s 2010 recall and
the communications crisis
that could have been avoided.
By Ashley Nichols
In late 2009, a public relations nightmare that had been brewing finally became a fullfledged storm of bad publicity when the Toyota Motor Corporation recalled more than 4.3 million vehicles due to a gas pedal and unintentional acceleration concern. Working in concordance the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA), the company had attempted to fix the problem both by recalling of affected models and encouraging Toyota owners to remove improperly fitted floor mats, which were thought to be the cause of the issue. Meanwhile, American media outlets were reporting about Toyota’s so-called corrective actions. At the beginning of 2010, Toyota’s future appeared tumultuous. After yet another gas pedal recall, the car company suspended its sales and ceased production of affected models. By February 4th, 2010, the company had recalled a total of 8.1 million vehicles (“A Timeline Of,” 2010). By this time, American politicians and Toyota owners had become increasingly distrustful towards the previously well-considered company. Most of this ill-will had come to light not because of the company’s actions, but because of its inactions. Toyota’s public relations response to the recall crisis was very slow, and many Americans began to believe that the company had something to hide or was trying to cover its tracks. The CEO of the company, Akio Toyoda, did not make a statement about the crisis until February 5 (“A Timeline Of,” 2010). The American media criticized the company for a lack of transparency and action while the situation was unfolding. However, Toyota had been taking action. The issue was that the company had been practicing Japanese style public relations and was unprepared to face the cultural differences that turned the crisis into a media firestorm. Another difficulty the company faced were the differing viewpoints of its public relations practitioners in the two countries. During the recall crisis, reports surfaced of Japanese and American public relations practitioners would get into screaming matches during phone
Toyota’s Cultural Crisis / 1
conferences as they tried to convince one another that their methodology of communication was the more effective one. This was ineffective for both sides. Instead of addressing the issues or resolving the recall, the Toyota representatives wasted time arguing about how to handle the crisis. This is because public relations practices vary greatly in the United States and Japan. Public relations in Asian countries (and at Toyota) differs greatly from American traditions of communication. When a crisis strikes in Asian countries, the company involved works silently to resolve the problem before addressing the media. However, this method is seen as unprofessional in the United States where consumers, politicians and other affected parties expect answers first and action second.
Unfortunately for Akio Toyoda, the company also discovered the harsh reality of American business expectations. When a company is responsible for a crisis, Americans expect the company’s CEO or President to address the people and apologize for whatever wrongdoing is taking place. In Japan, executives bow as a form of apology. The deeper the bow, the deeper the regret the executives hope to express. In the United States, however, apologies are not enough (“Toyota’s President Getting,” 2010). Americans often desire answers and explanations for the crisis that has occurred. If those expectations are not met quickly enough, they are quick to blame company executives for the issue.
An example of this contrast was made clear in a CBS article titled “Toyota's President Getting Harsh PR Lesson.” In the article, Toyoda’s “poor crisis-management skills, coupled with a corporate culture built on doing things slowly by consensus” are cited as the...