It’s amazing to me when — over and over – companies, politicians and celebrities convince themselves that they will get away with doing the wrong thing by covering up the truth with lies and excuses.
A month ago, it was Tiger. Last week, it was John Edwards again center stage as his former wingman released a tell-all book. This week Toyota is in the hot seat. And in this case, much more is at stake than a golf career or a political future – lives have been lost.
According to the Los Angeles Times in December, “A peerless reputation for quality and safety has helped Toyota become the world’s largest automaker. But even as its sales have soared, the company has delayed recalls, kept a tight lid on disclosure of potential problems and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects.”
The Times reported that incidents of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles were involved in accidents causing 19 fatalities since 2000, “more deaths from that problem than all other automakers combined.”
So when Toyota announced a recall of more than 3.8 million vehicles last week, and this week announced it was halting production on eight models, this did not make them the good guys, ala the 1982 Tylenol case study. Far from it.
Toyota knew since 2003 when their own tests on the Sienna minivan showed that a plastic panel could come loose and cause the gas pedal to stick and possibly cause the vehicle to accelerate out of control, according to the Times. They redesigned the part in 2004, but did not recall tens of thousands of vans that had been previously sold. It wasn’t until safety officials investigated that Toyota acknowledged that the part could come loose. Finally a year ago, Toyota recalled 26,501 vans, calling the replacement part, “an additional safety measure.”
The Times investigation went on to list numerous other ways in which Toyota either allegedly paid off people who had complaints about their vehicles racing out of control rather than allowing law suits to go to trial or bought the cars back and branded them as lemons. At one point, Toyota blamed the problem on gas pedals trapped by floor mats.
At a time when Toyota stood to gain from the demise of the American car industry, Toyota’s sterling reputation for quality and reliability has been dealt an enormous — and maybe fatal blow (no pun intended). So what should Toyota have done?
Let’s look again at the famous Tylenol case that is, literally, a textbook case on how to do crisis communications the right way.
After it was discovered that someone in the Chicago area was lacing Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules with cyanide and replacing them on store shelves, resulting in seven deaths, Johnson & Johnson:
- Immediately issued an alert, via national media, not to consume any type of Tylenol product and not to resume using it until the extent of the tampering problem could be determined.
- Stopped production of Tylenol and all advertising.
- Withdrew all Tylenol from the shelves in Chicago and the surrounding area.
After two more contaminated bottles were discovered, Tylenol realized the vulnerability of the product and ordered a national withdrawal of every capsule, even though there was little chance of discovering more cyanide-laced tablets. In doing so, they showed that they were unwilling to risk the public health and safety.
Six months later, they unveiled a redesigned bottle with new triple safety-seal packaging — a glued box, plastic seal over the neck of the bottle and a foil seal over the mouth of the bottle — at a press conference.
As a result of its proactive response to the crisis, Tylenol was seen as an unfortunate victim of a crime, and the brand was even stronger than it had been beforehand.
So what can small businesses and non-profits learn about how to handle their own crises? The same lesson that works for large brands works for small brands.
- Act quickly, decisively and truthfully to inform the public of any danger and take immediate steps to prevent further injuries.
- Don’t make excuses – even if it isn’t your fault, you have to accept the responsibility. Your lawyers may tell you otherwise. But you may win in the court of law and lose in the court of public opinion.
- Don’t try to cover it up. It won’t work in the long run any way, and the cover-up is usually worse than the original issue. Admit there’s a problem, apologize and come up with a plan for how you are going to fix it now and prevent it in the future.
- Communicate early and often with your stakeholders – your employees, customers, clients, donors, etc.
The bottom line? The smart thing — and the profitable thing in the long run — is the ethical thing.