Toyota’s Troubles Run Deeper Than PR

While at the venerable National Press Club in DC yesterday, handing out our 2010 CSR Awards, I couldn’t help notice another PR event being played out two meeting rooms over—and it didn’t involve happy executives receiving kudos for their good work. No, the Press Club had the Congressional hearings on Toyota playing on the big-screen TV. I noticed quite a few people settled in to watch the train wreck. And what a wreck was. Amid Akio Toyoda’s apologies and the grilling of transportation secretary Ray LaHood, I couldn’t help thinking that Toyota’s problems run much deeper than a crisis PR strategy, especially when Toyoda admitted that the company had grown too big, too fast. Nope, what Toyota really needs is a culture change, one that puts values and transparency first; something that the CSR Awards keynoter, Kevin Moss of BT, stressed in his speech to CSR executives two doors down. More apologies or new TV ads for the Siena can’t deflect these trust and reputation problems. It’s time for Toyota to do some heavy lifting.

–Scott Van Camp

I Might Have Received Your Press Release But I’m Not Telling You

In the past week, I somehow entered a PR time machine taking me back 15 years to the time when agency interns and junior account reps would call reporters and ask if they’ve received the fax announcing “fill in the blank”.  I received three of those calls this week after a healthy break from what is arguably an annoyance to reporters.  It should be said, I’m no longer a reporter, but I will play one in this blog entry.

Ten years ago, the mode of delivery changed from fax  to email but the same call lived on: “did you get the email I sent [a second ago]” about our new hire” or our new breakthrough toothbrush and fork combo? You get the point, I hope. If you are guilty of this media relations tactic, why are you wasting reporters’ time with these calls? Why are you using a leaner staff’s time forcing them to go down the list and make those calls which you know they hate to do? And should a reporter actually answer the phone (unlikely) and talk to the caller, most likely that caller is not prepared to handle the journalist’s questions. Better to deploy these lower-ranking employees on tasks that might bear fruit, like research or social media activities to spread the message.

Press releases definitely serve a purpose and despite some naysaying, they are not going away. Rather, they are morphing into highly optimized announcements that are refreshingly longer than a tweet, but too often self serving and without an apparent story idea for the recipient. But let the message speak for itself.  Having someone follow up with a call is grounds for dismissal of the whole release. Makes you want to hit the delete button, because if the news is interesting and the release is well written and to the point, a reporter will follow up or even write a story without following up. Have faith that we received your release, unless of course it fell into our spam folder.

- Diane Schwartz

‘Eggs In One Basket’ Theory Strikes Again

It happened with Tiger, now it may be happening again. I must admit my disappointment to hear that U.S. Winter Olympic figurehead Lindsey Vonn may be unable to ski in Vancouver because of a very painful bruise to her shin. Or, she may ski but the injury might prevent her from being in the running for a medal. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll know that Vonn has been at the center of the U.S. team’s promotional efforts for the Winter Games—just like swimmer Michael Phelps was for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Vonn goes into Vancouver as the face of Red Bull, Rolex, Procter & Gamble, Sports Illustrated (of late) and NBC. Bottom line: if she doesn’t compete, big sponsorship dollars and TV ratings go down the drain. Now, in no way can you compare Vonn’s situation to Tiger Woods’, but I can’t help thinking of the numerous “Don’t put all you eggs in one basket” comments by PR pundits after Tiger’s troubles broke. Is making one athlete the center of a corporate campaign looking for trouble? Personally, I hope Vonn is able to beat the injury and ski well, but the pressure she’s feeling now must be immense.

–Scott Van Camp

Recall that Statement! Toyota Crisis Driving Some Talking Heads Off Track

We can thank Toyota for giving the PR community so many things to write and talk about since it announced the recall of millions of its cars due to faulty accelerators.  The general consensus is that Toyota is going through a major crisis and only time will tell if it can get its once-sterling reputation back. Meanwhile, over on Capitol Hill, we have some very poor media training going on, care of  Ray LaHood, transportation secretary. During a Congressional panel yesterday to discuss the recalls, LaHood mouthed 3 words that he instantly regretted. When asked what Toyota owners affected by the recall should do, he said: “if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it.”  So, “stop driving it” were the three words he instantly apologized for saying out loud, calling it a “misstatement.” While his communications and other aides should have prepped him better for the Q&A portion, it is disappointing that a senior official would so hastily make such as statement. Clearly that is what he thinks (“stop driving it”) and soon enough he realized that his public statements and private sentiments clashed.  In a way, it is refreshing when a politician or any public figure says exactly what s/he feels.  But it is a poor reflection on the person and his/her staff when such statements wreak havoc on an already escalating crisis in which millions of Toyota owners have already stopped driving their vehicles — except to get those cars to the repair shop.  The Toyota crisis is an interesting case study in media training, reputation management and back-tracking.

- Diane Schwartz

No Laughing Matter: ‘Everybody Tells Jokes, But We Still Need Comedians’

At the Conference Board corporate image and branding conference in New York last week, there was a lot of talk about how to control your brand while allowing your customers (and others) to participate in the conversation, particularly online.  From crowd-sourcing to riding what Edelman svp of “insights”  Steve Rubel calls the “age of streams,” it’s no longer about controlling the message with a press release, a spiffy online newsroom and one eloquent corporate spokesman.  There are now thousands if not millions of spokespeople for your brand. And they are not media trained nor are their eyes on the corporate earnings report or the employee manual, page whatever, that outlines what you can and can’t say in public.  This age of streams, with new trends splashing at us at dizzying speed, is not necessarily comforting to the traditional communicators who are afraid of giving up control. Linda Rutherford of Southwest Airlines spoke about how they’ve used social networks to converse with their customers with the four-fold goals of enabling, inspiring, influencing or engaging with their stakeholders.  Check out their Nuts about Southwest blog and  you’ll see how they’re riding the streams. Most of the conversations at the Conference Board corporate image and branding conference revolved around social media and digital communications and in my hallway discussion with attendees, it was clear that nothing is clear right now. That many of them don’t know how much time and money to spend on social media, how to engage in meaningful dialogue with customers, how to motivate employees to be brand ambassadors, and, by the way, if they give up control, where will there jobs be tomorrow? Journalists are facing the same identity crisis, as user generated content and crowd-sourcing allows media companies to provide content and engagement at much lower costs.  But, quality is quality. Experience matters. Relationships bear fruit. So, going back to the title of this blog entry, a quote from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales: “Everybody tells jokes, but we still need comedians.”  PR and marketing are still relevant…So don’t get caught in the punchline — start riding the age of streams and you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn about your brand, your product and your ability to steer its success.

– Diane Schwartz

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