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Assessing Mr. Toyoda’s Role Through the Ongoing Recall Crisis at Toyota

As the recall at Toyota turns from a crisis to a long term saga that impacts the company’s reputation, the company is finally doing many of the right things and trying to avoid missteps. The full-page advertisements in 20 national newspapers, the helplines and emails, the updates and webpage buttons are all well and good and necessary. While these efforts may be too late to pacify many disgruntled customers, dealers and stakeholders, apologies are finally coming from North America heads (namely North American CEO Jim Lentz) and other company spokespeople. CEO Akio Toyoda was even quoted as recently as this past weekend saying he was “very sorry” to a local Japanese auto trade publication.

But this is a saga, not a flash-in-the-pan crisis, which means that there will be much more to deal with. There will likely be lawsuits and other legal actions, uncountable criticisms, and now there will be a congressional investigation.

Communications professionals and advisors like us are particularly interested to monitor and discuss ways in which Mr. Toyoda should and shouldn’t be utilized as the company attempts to weather this storm. The similarities and differences with the Tylenol crisis have been well established. But, how is the Toyota crisis different specifically regarding the CEO’s role? How should the CEO be utilized differently than Johnson & Johnson’s Jim Burke?

In July of last year, when Akio took over from his father, Shoichiro Toyoda offered some sage advice to his son. The new CEO was taking the wheel at a time of a global retrenchment of the auto industry and significant sales slump, even for this well-esteemed and trustworthy 70+ year-old company. At the same time, critics discussed how there had been a shift in focus from the customer and reliability to increasing volume, market share growth and profits. Shoichiro advised his son that he should consider these great challenges -both external and internal – as opportunities to emerge as an even stronger leader.

Just a few months later, the accelerator pedal problem is now a full blown crisis that threatens to hurt sales by over $1B, and cause immeasurable reputational damage.

So, how does a communicator assess and utilize Mr. Toyoda throughout this crisis? Is it time for
Mr. Toyoda himself to speak on the national and local stages in the U.S., or is it better left to Mr. Lentz ( and others? Is Mr. Toyoda adequately skilled, articulate, and would he be embraced by a U.S. audience? Mr. Lentz has already posted at least two video updates on the Toyota YouTube channel, ( Should that have been done by Mr. Toyoda or should his communication best be limited to a Q&A with a global business publication like the Wall Street Journal? Should he tour the facilities where they are implementing the fix, and visit the factories where there has been a work stoppage to talk to the workers?

If the company is really serious about refocusing on the customer, they should enlist dealers on a grass roots level to reach out to customers and employees. There is evidence that the dealers are doing that already, but how much support are they getting from HQ? Should Toyota consider developing a new “best practices” in assessing defects, faulty parts and testing that go well beyond the current NHTSA guidelines and industry norms? If so, than those efforts should be documented and turned into a communication campaign that Mr. Toyoda can begin to articulate to all audiences. Perhaps therein lies the opportunity Mr. Toyoda’s father spoke of.

What are your thoughts about Mr. Toyoda’s communication role here? Should it be expanded or curtailed? Should Toyota actively seek to emerge as a leader in safety or just hunker down and get through the crisis and hope that time will heal this wound?