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Toyota Took a Wrong Turn on Crisis Management

Driving any highway or back road, you can barely miss a Toyota.  The brand is an automaker’s version of the six degrees of separation.  Wherever you turn, you see one, or you know someone who has one or know someone who knows someone who drives a Toyota.  Quality was the axis of its brand.  I had a Camry a few years ago; loved it and wish I got another after wrapping my front end around the rear of an F-150 (even the best-made car won’t hold up to a monster truck).

Expectations were high when word got out that Toyota had a problem. Surely, a company that built a brand and a massive following of consumers into the world-leading automaker would do the right thing: Aggressively address the issue head-on, right its wrong, profess mea culpa and produce a solution.

And that’s precisely what Toyota did this week.  Problem is, Toyota’s crisis began to unfold last fall, and when the automaker unfurled its media-mix campaign this week, including plopping U.S. honcho Jim Lentz in network studios, critics attacked – and rightly so.

Toyota succumbed to the growing media and governmental pressure too late.  The automaker, and this isn’t backseat driving, knew well enough and long ago it had a problem that would only get worse.  Instead of being proactive, Toyota chose to stick its head in the sand.  That right there can tarnish any brand.

The very premise of issue and crisis management is prevention – not just stopping the headlines or social media storm, but anticipating internal and external threats or vulnerabilities and shoring up those gaps at the operational level.  It’s spending painstaking hours in the C-level suite agonizing over what gives the CEO insomnia and working with the senior management team on systems and protocols, and collaborating with industry, academia, vendors, suppliers and any other party in the supply chain.  It’s putting procedures in place to minimize the likelihood of disruption in business.

The automaker had to have had a crisis plan in someone’s filing cabinet.  Instead, millions of Toyotas are sitting idle in sales lots; even more consumers are now questioning the company’s mettle.

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