Toyota Car Safety and Their Image Problem

What good is vindication after obliteration? New reports that put Toyota and BP in a better light aren’t getting any traction. Eric Dezenhall reports on how the media unfairly jumps to attack companies—and then buries the news when the truth comes out.

Cars are seen on the forecourt of a Toyota dealer in Grove Park, south east London, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010. (Photo: Sang Tan / AP Photo)

In the last few days, new lawsuits have been launched against Toyota associated with reports that its cars involuntarily rocket out of control. Against this backdrop, I asked an audience of corporate executives during a speech how many of them were aware that Toyota had been vindicated, at least in part, on the charges that their vehicles spontaneously accelerated due to an electronic flaw. Not one hand went up.

Indeed, a recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded that in 35 out of the 58 cases where data recorders had been operating on crash cars, the brake pedals had not been applied. An additional 14 vehicles showed only minimal braking, and another nine revealed that the brakes had been depressed at the very last moments—too late.

In other words, there was no demon-chip in the belly of these vehicles causing them to bolt.

While some news outlets reported this analysis, the exculpation was a whisper in comparison to the life-of-its-own Media-Internet Vortex that established satanically possessed Toyotas as a phenomenon in automotive lore.

The besieged BP endured similarly fantastic attacks when, after the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, news coverage was dominated by apocalyptic forecasts. The most popular one foretold of a U.S. east coast that would be transformed into a massive oil slick that would ruin summer beach seasons for generations. Others foretold of an undersea methane explosion that would trigger killer tsunamis; an eternally spewing crude geyser that would poison all of the earth’s oceans; and Old Testament-style poison rain storms.

These things never happened, and the much anticipated waves of tar balls scheduled to wash ashore on Gulf beaches far underwhelmed the predictions.

To be sure, neither Toyota nor BP are blameless Lilies-of-the-Valley in these messes. Much of the outrage has been understandable and appropriate, and consumers and the government have been right to demand an explanation for the terrible events of 2010, not to mention assurances that they never repeat themselves.

Nevertheless, life in the Vortex poses a question of proportion: Do legitimate grievances against corporate behavior warrant unfettered punishment in the form of dubious, reputation-crushing—and often false—allegations?

For practical purposes, it doesn’t matter much because the Vortex is engineered to go in one direction only, that is, to exclusively stone postmodern witches, not vindicate or provide context.

The Vortex is organically aided and abetted by a loose affiliation of parties with a symbiotic interest in keeping the news as terrible as possible. These “crisis capitalists,” who operate virtually without risk, include plaintiffs’ lawyers, short sellers, journalists, labor unions, competitors, hysterical bloggers and pundit/experts who only get their mugs on TV if they reinforce the dominant narrative that Kingdom Come has finally arrived.

Any attack on an uncuddly enterprise will be embraced in the Vortex as a victimless crime with little recourse for the accused witches.

Runaway cars are the perfect metaphor for the over-determined nature of crisis management in the Vortex. The German automaker Audi presaged this syndrome when its U.S. market was decimated for more than a decade in the wake of a 1986 60 Minutes report about the Audi 5000 unsubtly entitled “Out of Control.” The centerpiece of the report was a woman—the wife of a minister, no less—who claimed that her car took off and killed her small boy. A plaintiffs’ lawyer-funded “Audi Victims Network” metastasized, and sales plummeted overnight.

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Almost all crises involving corporations have the cinematic whiff of desperation.

Years later, the mom who launched a thousand Audis on 60 Minutes admitted under oath that her foot had been on the accelerator (not on purpose) during the accident. “Sudden acceleration” (every good media crisis needs a scary phenomenon), at least as far as Audis were concerned, was a myth.

Yippee. What good is vindication after obliteration?

Contrary to some of the damage control advice being offered by dime-store experts, neither Toyota nor BP were a 140-character tweet away from being embraced as responsible corporate citizens. (Sorry, kids, social media isn’t the cure for every PR debacle). Furthermore, when Toyota and BP began running ads outlining their commitments to fixing their problems, they were savaged for spending money on self-promotion, not problem-solving.

So, should the two companies have spent big money on defending themselves via advertising and public relations?

Absolutely, and here’s why: The geometric explosion of communications vehicles has paradoxically left the crisis-afflicted without a reliable apparatus for vindication, so those under attack have no choice but to become their own media. Of course self-reporting will appear self-serving—it is—but what’s the alternative? Waiting for the elusive above-the-fold headline in the USA Today screaming: OOPS! TOYOTAS DON’T HAVE MINDS OF THEIR OWN AFTER ALL!

There is a three-ingredient cocktail that ultimately helps vindicate corporate villains, which includes genuine problem-solving (fix the problem, plug the leak); the repetition of an exculpatory message (we’ve recalled and fixed lots of cars, we’ve cleaned the Gulf); and time. Good, old-fashioned, sweating it out until some other cultural villain blows up and gets sucked into the Vortex.

Almost all crises involving corporations have the cinematic whiff of desperation. (More than one reporter has ominously asked me if I thought the mighty Johnson & Johnson would survive its current quality-control problems. Answer: Um, yeah.) Fact is, companies under siege like Tyco International, Merck, Ford, Firestone, Exxon, Hewlett-Packard and Goldman Sachs usually do recover.

When the Vortex is done spinning, and a company accepts that it is not immoral to defend itself when nobody else will, redemption, however wobbly a vessel, is possible.

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.