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Home » Community, Engagement, Social Media News, social media screw-up

A lesson in handling recall news: Hint – don’t pull a Toyota

Submitted by on November 16, 2012 – 1:15 pmNo Comment

Toyota should know better than anyone how to disseminate bad news to affected customers. Again this week it announced the recall of 2.7 million Prius, Corolla and Avensis models, bringing the total number of Toyota branded cars off the road to more than 10 million this year. That’s more or less in line with the recall numbers each of the past two years, 2010 and 2011.  The world’s biggest carmaker (as of 1H, 2012, anyhow) should be an old pro then at utilizing its social channels to keep people informed and up-to-date. Right? Think again.

At best, we can give Toyota mixed marks for its handling of this week’s recall. Its UK unit was quick to post updates via Twitter on its @ToyotaGB channel to its 7,000 followers as the following Tweets show:

And in the U.S.? Crickets. Prius owners were more or less left to fend for themselves. The Toyota USA channel made no mention of the recall to its 109,000 followers, nor did it say anything to the nearly 1.2 million fans of its Facebook page. There, you could find news instead about the launch of the 2013 Avalon. Evidently, the unwritten rule is to never mix recall news with launch news.

This is all giving us that wrong kind of deja vu feeling here at SMI. As you may recall, Toyota was among the big brands that got hammered by the Tweeting public a few years ago for so poorly communicating bad news – at the time, for sticky gas pedals and floor mats that bunch up, problems that had fatal consequences.

Toyota is getting off more lightly this time around as the latest recall is labeled a proactive move, the type of response industry watchdogs demanded of major carmakers following the sticky pedal debacle of 2010. But you have to wonder how effective this recall will be if the carmaker is being selective with its outreach comms channels in informing the public. Further more, any goodwill it would have received for being proactive is lost in the muddled, absentee messaging.

When I looked at this issue a few years back, I listed five myths that corporate crisis communications teams need to rethink if they are to ever properly handle #recall news and preserve their brand reputation. Here they are again:


1) But that’s old bad news. Surely, the public won’t care about that.
Think again. Citizen watchdogs don’t pay as much heed to the “freshness” of an unsavory news event as a journalist might. And, of course, fresh outrage by the public makes an old PR crisis fair game for a journalist.

2) Responding to bad news will only spread bad news.
The wait-and-see strategy is well and truly dead. To be sure, not every gripe will turn into front page news, but, as Southwest Airlines and the British stationary chain Paperchasecan attest, all it takes is a single Tweet by a well-connected person and you’ll be battling a full-blown PR fiasco in a matter of hours, even on the weekend.

3) If the mainstream media tires of the story, so too will the bloggers. Wrong. Call it the half life of bad news. Today, reputation-wrecking issues no longer die the moment an under-resourced news outfit loses interest. The public has abundant time, a short term memory and ample reserves of indignation. These issues never really blow over with them, particularly as long as the details pop up again and again in search engine results.

4) Quick! Call the reputation management PR specialists.
The truth is the hired-gun kings of spin have as much to fear from this new world order as the clients they represent. They built a lucrative business courting sympathetic newsroom contacts and coaching execs how to speak in calming “we’re-on-it” soundbites. Responding to a people-fueled furor is a completely different kind of skill. You have to be responsive, thorough and, most importantly, present – at the very least, hearing out the aggrieved – in the primary discussion forums where the fracas is raging. A genuine, timely and transparent response is key here, our consultancy is quick to advise our clients. Try to spin them and you’re toast.

5) But we cannot use the company Twitter feed, YouTube channel or Facebook page to respond to a budding crisis. That’s where we post cheery news. Many major brands should be applauded for building vast communities of followers in these social media channels. But it makes no sense to use these forums only to talk about new brand launches, marketing campaigns or product give-aways. These are your most supportive fans congregating here daily. Level with them here. They’ll appreciate the candor. We were surprised GM, despite its talk of undergoing a people-powered renaissance, didn’t use its blogs, YouTube or Twitter channels to say anything about what the latest recall would mean – if anything – for its customers.

Toyota is hardly alone in failing to utilize social media to defend its reputation amid a corporate crisis. You can read about some of the classic #fails here – and take away a few important lessons too.

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