Teresa Horscroft's blog

Teresa Horscroft is a PR consultant who helps companies in the information technology and marketing sectors to raise awareness of their products and services and increase sales.

25 March 2010

Can Toyota rebuild its reputation after the recent crisis?

Some media students from Alton College interviewed me last week about how Toyota’s faulty accelerator pedal crisis may have damaged the company's reputation. While it is evident that the car manufacturer made some basic crisis communications errors, it will be interesting to see whether Toyota can rebuild its reputation as one of the world’s most trusted car brands.

The mistakes made by this fast growth car company will no doubt ensure that it is referred to in business and communications management text books for years to come.
The first mistake Toyota made was not to respond quickly enough. It was too slow to: acknowledge the problem; decide how to deal with the problem; and communicate remedial actions. In a crisis speed is critical. In recent years we’ve gone from having a few hours or even days to just a few seconds before news about a crisis is spread widely via online blogs, social media sites and news pages. It’s more important than ever that, as part of crisis preparedness , companies have planned for a multitude of possible events. The planning should include among other things agreement on how to respond, who will respond and even a draft of the planned response. I am sure there are a number of scenarios that could be covered by a single statement for a company in this sector, where product recalls are not uncommon. Doing the legwork in advance really does gain valuable time.

The second, but my no means final, error Toyota made was to try to downplay the problem. It will always be wrong to trivialise a problem where people have or could die. And honesty is crucial.

Further, by adopting a decentralised approach to disseminating information, customers received mixed messages about the nature of the problem, adding fuel to the already flaming fire of consumer anxiety.

In a crisis, you need to quell rumours and confusion by ensuring that communication comes from the top of the organisation. Since the internet is global and bad news travels quickly online, it should also be consistent across the globe (with local detail if necessary). And if you’re communicating on webcasts or TV, don’t forget the importance of body language. It’s not enough to say you’re sorry, you have truly be sorry in order to look sorry too. I watched one TV interview where the spokesperson appeared defensive and even slightly annoyed at the questions he was being asked. This is not a good attitude to take. People have died. Show some respect and remorse.
Despite these blunders, it is still possible to survive a crisis when a company, like Toyota, has already built a huge amount of customer trust. It’s no easy ride to recovery however. Toyota still needs to get the business response and the way it communicates that right from now on. It was slow to engage with and leverage the support of dealers, suppliers and partners in the early stages of the crisis, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to start. It’s also not to late to work with other key influencers , such as Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond or independent car safety experts. Invite these trusted experts to test cars. Get them into the manufacturing plant to review first-hand the quality and testing processes and let them lift the hood on what happens under Toyota’s bonnet. Film it, document it and use it to highlight how seriously safety and quality are taken at Toyota. But don’t use it as an excuse for what happened. Acknowledge the issues and show how they are being tackled. Being open and transparent will show that Toyota has nothing to hide. This will help to rebuild trust and perhaps even gain some new followers in the process.

Toyota still has a chance to rebuild its reputation as long as it continues to deliver on its promises. People will forgive a mistake when it’s dealt with openly and honestly. Anything else plants seeds of doubt that can damage trust and brand loyalty.

21 March 2010

How your office environment and staff behaviour impacts your corporate identity

My preparation for a video interview this week included more than researching Toyota’s battered reputation. I spent just as much thinking about visual impact. This included tidying away desk clutter, displaying recent copies of marketing and PR trade magazines as well as the daily papers and filling the flower vase. It reminded me that a company’s image is not only communicated by its collateral, press coverage, website and product packaging. Corporate identity is presented in every single interaction a company has with its suppliers, partners and customers. The way the receptionist answers the phone or greets visitors; whether the office is tidy or messy, modern or old-fashioned, small or large; how welcoming the reception area is; and how staff dress and behave, will all communicate something about your company.

Ask yourself what your own office and staff says about your company and is it consistent with how you describe the company and your core values.

As an example, think about how you might feel if you saw a Waitrose van driver throwing rubbish out of the window while driving along. Probably not the behaviour you’d expect from the nation’s favourite ‘green’ retailer. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been unimpressed by a sullen or rude receptionist. How do you feel when you walk into a shop and hear sales staff gossiping about the person they just served in front of you? This happened to a colleague recently who subsequently decided to boycott that shop in future.

When we work so hard to gain customers, losing them as a direct result of staff behaviour should not be tolerated. But it really is equally important to consider the entire journey that a potential or existing customer takes with your company. If you don’t already undertake regular and comprehensive corporate identity audit then there’s no better time to start than right now.