Who's Really Behind Toyota's Crisis?

Targets in digital-age crises, like Tiger Woods and the Japanese automaker, are fighting a losing battle against media, lawmakers, and other crisis creators. Eric Dezenhall on how they can survive the wiki-like explosion of negative attention.

02.23.10 9:46 PM ET

Legendary wide receiver Lynn Swann once endured the armchair observation of a fellow ballet student who said that ballet was a lot like football. Swann told his classmate, “Try pirouetting with 11 300-pound guys trying to tackle you.”

From Toyota, whose executives are testifying before Congress this week, to Tiger Woods, fresh off his mea culpa, targets in digital-age crises—even if they brought their problems on themselves—are fighting a battle against an array of motivated adversaries they cannot control.

You wouldn’t know this, though, by following news coverage where crises are portrayed as puzzles that could be deftly resolved if proper-thinking professionals in controlled environments simply inserted time-tested pieces.

From Toyota, whose executives are testifying before Congress this week, to Tiger Woods, fresh off his mea culpa, targets in digital-age crises—even if they brought their problems on themselves—are fighting a battle against an array of motivated adversaries they cannot control.

The problem is that regardless of what a contemporary scandal target does, the crisis is virtually always declared by our global Greek chorus to have been mismanaged. Despite demands for Toyota to recall their vehicles and apologize, the company has been savaged for not doing so correctly. Despite Tiger’s apologia, the buzz saws came out in full force to shred his televised monologue. Everybody’s got The Answer, it seems, except those who need one.

Why would corporations, governments, and celebrities, with all the resources on the planet, consistently choose to screw up their cases? They don’t. Rather, after an initial catalyst, today’s scandal afflicted are not only confronting serious and systemic problems, they are up against a multiplying force of “investors”—I call them “crisis capitalists”—who are singularly motivated to keep the wildfires raging in order to fulfill their agendas, both disparate and symbiotic.

Crisis capitalists include an agglomeration of reporters, victims (real and imagined), bloggers, tweeters, plaintiffs lawyers, regulators, legislators, non-governmental organizations, activists, short-sellers, anonymous sources, looky-loos, technical experts, analysts, media hounds, crisis experts (of which I am a fraternity member), and other Dickensian figures—all of whom are selling something. These players all congeal, after whatever big bang set them off, to create their own galaxy of disaster, with an orbit and gravitational force all its own. The digital-age crisis is a “wiki” phenomenon; its author, editor, and crisis manager is everybody. There is no reasoning with this cosmic beast because the battle is not about information. The only player seeking a resolution is the besieged subject.

Indeed, with scores of “tweets” per second announcing new Toyota glitches, a clown car of bimbos dive-bombing before cameras to shriek about their betrayal at the hands of a married golfer, and staccato bursts of talking heads reminding us that Goldman Sachs is the Antichrist, there is no slick antidote here.

Consider the latest attack du jour: Somebody, anybody, plants a rumor on a blog that the Department of Justice is about to indict Target X. This leads to a crack investigative reporter calling the DOJ to inquire. The DOJ refuses to confirm or deny pending indictments, which will both justify the media’s continued “reporting” and reinforce through opaque rhetoric that there is, in fact, something serious brewing. As the media continue to dig, it will have the “push-polling” effect of alerting the community in which Target X lives and works that Target X is radioactive. This, in turn, will lead to a fresh round of blog posts such as: “The New York Times is sitting on an explosive story” about Target X’s malfeasance and impending indictments. Well, the reasoning goes, if the indictment never comes and the Times never prints a story, the system worked, right?

Wrong, because Target X now has a new layer of stink on him that may not lead to serving hard time at a Supermax prison, but will likely trigger investigations, lawsuits, big legal fees, lost business, and negative news stories with the slant that Target X is dirty, but no one’s been able to prove it yet. Just ask New York Governor David Paterson, who has been on the receiving end of this very device.

It’s a lot easier to light a forest fire than it is to put one out, because there is no risk to the crisis capitalist that ignited it, only gain.

As Toyota faces Congress this week, the company will be walking a fine line between protecting itself legally by characterizing carefully what it sees as its responsibility, and proving that it is addressing the serious integrity allegations against its brand. Nothing in Toyota’s testimony, however, will dissuade plaintiffs’ lawyers and short-sellers from seeding the prefabricated spin with their handmaidens in the press that only a guilty company would have acquitted itself so poorly.

So, what’s a scandal target to do? Separate what you can control from what you can’t. You can control what you are doing to fix a problem and how you sell that fix. Forget the crisis capitalists. Sure, a company can counter-tweet the tweets, but don’t mistake little Band-Aids with big-ticket strategies.

Survivors play a long game, which includes: fixing tangible problems (sticky pedals); focusing on core competencies (golfers winning golf tournaments); preaching to the choir (those with the greatest investment in their recovery); not over-communicating (Unhelpful: zillionaire bankers ad-libbing that they’re “doing God’s work.”); and allowing Father Time to work his magic.

Despite mid-crisis doomsaying, those in crisis often recover, but it requires knowing what to engage and what to reject. Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein will not be redeemed by appearing in advertisements cuddling a beagle puppy because the defensive line of the New Orleans Saints would surely tackle them.

Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.