Arun Sudhaman

Working the angles around media, comms and marketing.

Toyota’s runaway reputation

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Toyota has confirmed that it is studying how perceptions of the company have changed since the onset of its staggering recall crisis. It comes in the wake of a meeting between the carmaker and PR agency MS&L in Paris, although it seems unclear whether Toyota is willing to retain external counsel to assist in its response.

There has been mountains of copy devoted to the Japanese car brand over the past few months, much of it from PR types weighing in with their two cents about how Toyota should be responding. I know this, because I wrote one of these stories myself.

What interests me in particular are the cultural issues at play. Crisis comms often appears to be a different kettle of fish in Japan, where consumer expectations of brands are rather different. Speed is also less pressing. And, of course, Japanese companies seem more comfortable putting reputation management into the hands of the advertising agencies.

Veteran Japan reporter David Kilburn has written an extremely insightful post on Toyota’s travails over at Bill Rylance’s Watatawa website, and I’d urge everyone to read it. One of his key points is that Japanese corporate cultures have faced a steep learning curve when it comes to open communication. Kilburn added a few more interesting examples when I contacted him:

“In a longer piece, I would also have referred to the culture of
non-communication and miscommunication that stigmatised Mitsubishi
Motors’ recall in the 1990’s (Subsequently, of yet another recall, a
PR spokesman said “”This is an ordinary recall so we have no plans to
issue an apology”). Also: the problems of Snow Brand and their
mishandling put that company out of business though, decades earlier,
Meiji Milk survived the scandals of its arsenic-contaminated baby milk
formulations – but that was in the pre-internet age when it was easier
to restrict the flows of bad news and consumers reacted more slowly.

You may have read recently that the Japanese government finally
admitted it had secret agreements allowing US nuclear weapons to dock
at Japanese ports, despite years of absolute denials. This admission
only came after the agreements were disclosed under Freedom of
Information enquiries in the USA. Not that anyone trusts government
statements anywhere these days, but it does suggest a cultural problem
with honesty.

A ‘cultural problem with honesty’ – ouch. In my experience many corporates, regardless of geography, appear to have a similar problem.

Since the crisis hit, Fleishman-Hillard and Weber Shandwick report that Japanese companies are starting to think about whether their own crisis plans are adequate. Time will tell.

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Written by Arun Sudhaman

March 18, 2010 at 1:28 pm

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