Toyota’s Reputation Still Needs Repairing After $1 Billion Settlement

In 2009 and 2010 Toyota faced a doozy of a crisis when some customers reported that the cat company’s vehicles were accelerating without warning, causing accidents, injuries and deaths.

The accusations sent Toyota’s sales reeling, while its reputation as a maker of safe and dependable cars took a nosedive.

Now, nearly four years later, Toyota has announced a $1.1 billion settlement from a class-action suit filed by car owners who claimed economic loss because of the unintended acceleration of Toyota’s cars.

In announcing the settlement, Toyota took pains to state that it wasn’t admitting fault; both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA were unable to find any defects in Toyota’s source code that could cause problems.

Not surprisingly, between 2009 and today, the company has been under intense scrutiny by safety regulators. In 2011 Toyota President Akio Toyoda went before Congress to pledge better quality control. Embarrassingly, the problems continue.

Earlier this month, the NHTSA fined Toyota a record $17.4 million for failing to quickly report floor-mat problems with its Lexus vehicles. And in November, Toyota recalled 7.4 million cars due to a power window problem that poses a fire risk.

Yet, according to CNNMoney, Toyota is set to pass General Motors and reclaim “the world’s biggest car maker” title for 2012, following a bumper year of sales both at home and overseas.

In a way, Toyota’s crisis arc reminds me of the BP crisis. That company was down in the dumps after the Gulf oil spill in 2010, but today has rebounded nicely on the balance sheet.

Toyota will have to answer some questions if it wants to get back on track, such as what effect will the massive settlement with consumers have on its reputation? Another question for communications executives is: How many more fines and product recalls can the company allow before loyal customers start fleeing for other car brands?

Not only do many of its cars need repairing, but so, too, does Toyota’s crisis response strategy.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

Netflix Streaming Snafu Highlights Friend-Foe Relationships

Christmas Eve 2012 was not an enjoyable one for Netflix, the popular streaming video service. That night, customers across Canada, Latin America and the U.S. hit snags in streaming the company’s movies and TV shows into their homes—via various devices like gaming consoles and DVD players.

The snafu was nowhere near the seriousness of the crisis that hit Netflix in 2011, when it announced it was increasing prices through the unbundling of its DVD and streaming video services, and then had to backtrack.

In fact, service outages are not at all uncommon (see RIM). But what makes this an interesting incident is that Netflix uses Amazon Web Services to stream its content to customers. With its Amazon’s own streaming service linked to its hot tablet device, the Kindle Fire, Netflix and Amazon are direct competitors in the streaming space.

So Neflix’s use of Amazon’s cloud servers struck a nerve online. Many of the comments regarding the Netflix service outage were along the lines of “Why does Netflix use Amazon’s servers? Netflix should have its own servers.”

From a communications standpoint, it’s interesting to note that Netflix didn’t overtly blame Amazon for the Christmas Eve service outages.  Instead, Netflix took the high road, stating, “”We are investigating exactly what happened and how it could have been prevented.”

In the business world—and particularly in technology—it’s often unclear which companies are friends or foes. In the case of the Big 4—Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon—they may be foes but they are also willing to work with each other on initiatives that benefit each party. Such is the case of Netflix and Amazon.

The lesson here: With the economy still stalled, there will surely be more of these agreements in 2013. Corporate communicators need to be sensitive to partnerships with their own competitors, and exercise knowledge and good judgment in case something goes wrong.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

PR Lessons Learned: Greatest Hits of 2012

As PR News readers know, we’re big on lessons learned. Many of these PR lessons result in tried and true tactics, like “measure everything” and “listen to your target audiences.” Because 2012 is drawing to a close, I’ve compiled my own “lessons learned” list for 2012, drawn from some very public PR dust-ups. Here are my favorite five:

Lesson 1: Learn From Others’ Mistakes. Starbucks U.K. should have dialed “M” for McDonald’s before launching a hashtag campaign this week to engage with customers. Asking people to #spreadthecheer for the holidays, the public responded with tweets criticizing Starbucks over a tax controversy and labor practices. Posts like “Hey #Starbucks, PAY YOUR F_______ Tax #spreadthecheer” appeared on a big screen at a Starbucks-sponsored ice rink in London. McDonald’s suffered a similar fate in January with its #McDStories campaign.

Lesson 2: Trust Your Fan Base. Food Network’s Guy Fieri went on the offensive after his new Times Square restaurant is skewered by The New York Times. “”I think we all know what’s going on here, I mean [Times food critic Pete Wells] came in with a different agenda,” said Fieri on the “Today” show. Fieri could afford to rip the Times, because he has nearly 800,000 Twitter followers and his “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” is one of the Food Network’s most popular shows.

Lesson 3: A Little “Cheeky” Humor Goes a Long Way. After revealing photos of Prince Harry in Las Vegas appeared online, media pundits said Harry may never recover his royal reputation. Instead of buttoning up about the crisis, Harry used a bit of humor to diffuse the controversy. His first public appearance after the crisis broke saw him meeting with a 6-year-old boy, a survivor of acute leukemia. In an interview with the boy on the day before the meeting, the boy told reporters he was going to say, “I’m glad you’ve got your clothes on, Prince Harry.” Harry was briefed on those remarks and said to the boy, “I heard you were on ITV earlier and you said something cheeky—but let’s not talk about that here.”

Lesson 4: Any Publicity is Good Publicity. When it comes to The Donald, the old adage still rings true. When Donald Trump told his 1.7 million followers on Oct. 22 that he had big news to announce about President Obama on Oct. 24 at noon, the media and public took notice. While his announcement turned out to be a dud, love him or hate him, Trump’s gravitas got him what he wanted: to be back in the national spotlight.

Lesson 5: Never Make the Coverup as Bad as the Crime. After San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 days for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, word got out the he had planned to launch a campaign to avoid suspension by creating a fake Web site, highlighting a product that doesn’t exist in hopes of using that as a “reason” for his positive test. Cabrera was able to overcome the positive test, signing a $16 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays for 2013. He may never overcome that lame coverup.

Do you have some PR lessons learned in 2012 that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

What’s Your Sentence?

The story goes that journalist Clare Booth Luce once asked President John F Kennedy what his one sentence was, that a “great man is a sentence”. Concerned that Kennedy was more “a paragraph” than a sentence, Booth (one of the first females to serve in Congress) was making a point that he needed to focus.  Daniel Pink, in his latest book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” uses this exercise to implore readers to figure out what really motivates them.

By asking “What’s Your Sentence?” you are putting your goals into clearer focus.  You are shedding the hundreds of things you want to be and defining what matters.  Pink offers up famous examples to this answer, such as Abe Lincoln’s one sentence being “He preserved the union and freed the slaves.”

This is a question you can apply not only to your personal goals and self-definition, but to how you define your brand, a campaign goal, a resolution for next year. That’s right: resolution, not resolutions.  As we enter the quieter days of the year, when we are hopefully taking a break from the office and spending more time with family and friends, it might be a good and challenging question to ponder.  So, what’s your sentence?  There’s no right or wrong answer, but how you answer it can change the way you work, think and communicate in 2013 and beyond.

- Diane Schwartz

Research Without Insight Is Just Trivia, and Causes Nightmares

PR pros who are serious about measurement are flooded in data. They’re swimming in it. Sometimes they contract with measurement and monitoring companies, which provide them with bucketloads of data. They may also be getting data from in-house marketing analysts. And then there is data from their own surveys and from Google Analytics.

With their backs breaking under the weight of all this data, they’ve got to somehow make sense of it and use it to prove the value of their PR programs and secure their budgets for the next year—as well as secure their own jobs.

This is the stuff PR pros’ nightmares are made of.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can immerse yourself in PR measurement—and be a data freak, even—and still get a good night’s sleep. You just have to learn how to simplify and repeat this mantra: Research with insight is just trivia.

This the mantra Katie Paine kept repeating during PR News’ Dec. 13 measurement workshop in New York. Katie, who is chief marketing officer of News Group and author of Measure What Matters and of PR News’ long-running Image Patrol features, is on a worldwide mission to show PR pros how to create measurement programs that are manageable and effective. As Katie says, the secret to curing yourself of sleepless nights is to find out what’s keeping your senior leaders awake at night. Learn that, and figure out which stakeholder group you want to influence and measure, and you’ve got yourself a measurement program that will help your business prosper—and that’s how you secure your PR budget.

“PR measurement is difficult enough—start simply and be specific about who your stakeholders are and what you want them to do,” Katie said at the workshop. “Your audience is not everybody with a pulse. And ask yourself what is your role in getting them to do what you want them to do.”

Once you’ve cornered the CEO and found out what keeps her or him awake at night, figure out which actions from a particular stakeholder group will allow the veil of sleep to descend on your CEO. Then, start with a stakeholder group that is easily identified—and one that you can measure. (Admonishment from Katie: Just pick one stakeholder group and resist the temptation to think big.)

You do need to make the connection between what you do as a PR person and which action you want that stakeholder group to take, but with these simple, humble beginnings, you’re on your way to becoming a well-rested data geek.

Steve Goldstein

On Twitter: @SGoldsteinAI 

12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief Highlights Goodwill

By now most of us are aware of “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief,” set for tonight at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The concert’s lineup is a who’s who of rock royalty (including The Who, by the way), and more than 2 billion people worldwide around will have broadcast access to the concert.

Since the concert’s sponsors say every dollar spent on ticket sales will go to those in need, the proceeds—also including donations during the concert itself—will be considerable, and will benefit the thousands of New Yorkers affected by super-storm Sandy.

From a public relations/reputation standpoint, there are many organizations that will benefit from involvement in tonight’s relief effort. Here’s a sampling:

James Dolan, Madison Square Garden Company: One of the main 12-12-12 concert organizers, Dolan is often maligned by the press and public for his management of the New York Knicks, owned by MSG, and for business decisions on behalf of Cablevision, of which he’s president and CEO. After Sandy hit the New York/New Jersey area on Oct. 29, it was revealed that MSG asked employees in an e-mail to return to work on Nov. 2, or they would be docked a personal or vacation day. Give Dolan credit here, his involvement in 12-12-12 is admirable.

Various Media Properties: Speaking of Cablevision, cable and media companies are known not to play nice with each other over program fees, which ultimately enrage consumers who end up paying more on their monthly bills. Tonight, 39 U.S.-based TV channels and many more web properties will show the 12-12-12 concert, demonstrating goodwill towards each other and the public.

Robin Hood Foundation: This group, who will distribute the money raised by the concert, already has a solid reputation as a fully transparent charity organization. Its “Concert for New York City,” held five weeks after 9/11, raised more than $35 million, and the proceeds for 12-12-12 is expected to be considerably more. The Robin Hood Foundation should serve as a model for those organizations looking to start a give-back program.

Social Media Platforms: Facebook, Foursquare, GetGlue and Google+ are all playing major social roles in tonight’s festivities. Foursquare may have the best hook for people to give: The first 25,000 people to check in anywhere using #121212concert will have $10 donated on their behalf by Samsung Galaxy.

PR News urges you to check out the 12-12-12 website, where you can find out more about the stellar lineup of artists and how to give to those affected by Sandy.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancampo1

Apple to Create Jobs in U.S.-PR Ploy or Sincere Effort?

Last week, Apple’s Tim Cook announced that his company would invest $100 million to move a portion of its Mac manufacturing back to U.S. shores in 2013. Cook told Bloomberg that “Next year we’re going to bring some production to the U.S.”

This was met with praise by the majority of business and economic pundits and executives. But others took a look at the fine print and weren’t entirely convinced of Apple’s sincerity. First, it was pointed out that $100 million is tip money compared to the company’s cash on hand: $121.3 billion. And second, Cook distanced the effort from a corporate standpoint by stating,” This doesn’t mean that Apple will do it ourselves, but we’ll be working with people and we’ll be investing our money.”

While skeptical of the statements of CEOs in general, here I’m inclined to give Apple the benefit of the doubt. After all, Cook instituted philanthropic efforts at Apple after predecessor Steve Jobs made it a point not to. And while part of the reason for this decision is most likely to generate some good PR, let’s face it: any investment towards jobs in the U.S. is a good thing, isn’t it?

But Apple has to be careful here. If next year the initiative turns out to be a drop in the bucket or it fails to live up to expectations, the company will open itself up to heavy criticism.

One of the tenets of good PR and CSR is to keep your promises, and if you don’t it will come back to bite you. Apple must keep this in mind.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

Where Do You Find Inspiration?

PR News recently honored in Washington, D.C., its People to Watch—PR professionals age 30 or under who have already established themselves as leaders within their own organizations. Leading up to our Nov. 29 luncheon event we asked them who or what has inspired them in their PR career. Many of our young honorees mentioned the veteran PR pros who took a chance on them when they first started out and who continue to play mentor roles.

Some of the other sources of inspiration they mentioned are especially illuminating—for me they serve as reminders that sources of inspiration are all around us. We just have to open our eyes. Are younger people more likely to find inspiration all around them? I suspect so, sadly. As an eye-opener, here are some of the sources of inspiration they mentioned:

1. A life partner: Direct Energy’s Julie Hendry said her husband was a source of inspiration—”he makes me want to be better, both in my career and personal life.”

2. A grandparent: Another People to Watch honoree said his grandfather was a source of inspiration.  ”He was an orphan with no education who faked documents to join the Navy at 16, but he was the center of attention and life of the party everywhere he went,” said Albe Zakes of TerraCycle. “Watching how he used humor and kindness in a casual, honest way to win friends (and influence people) left a lasting mark on me that later drew me to PR.”

3. Siblings: Jeamy Molina of Oncor Electric Delivery said her younger siblings inspire her to be a motivational force. “I’m the oldest of four and I’ve always tried to do things that will motivate my siblings to do well and just be a good example for them,” she told us. “Making sure they have someone to look up to and be proud of is the driving force behind any of my successes.”

Perhaps you see a theme developing here. Are you looking for inspiration in your life and in your work? A good place to start is with the people closest to you—your family. Sometimes those of us above 30 miss the obvious.

Who inspires you in your life and work?

Steve Goldstein

On Twitter: @SGoldsteinAI 

Latest Subject-Line Study Offers Actionable Data

In the current issue of PR News (12/3/2012), there’s a story on e-mail campaign pitfalls and best practices. One major pitfall is that two-thirds of e-mails sent aren’t relevant to their audiences (MarketingSherpa). One best practice is ensuring you tie your e-mails to social networks for maximum effect.

Then there’s making a good first impression: the subject line. What constitutes a good subject line has been debated for years. I often second-guess my subject lines when reaching out to potential story sources.

Now a new study by Adestra offers some strong subject-line data. Analyzing 1.159 billion B2B e-mails sent within the last 12 months, the study finds subject lines that work best are either less than 30 characters, or longer than 90 characters. In-between lengths are termed the “dead zone.”

Word count results in the study produced similar results to the character lengths in that each end of the count scale performed the highest. However the comparative results show that much shorter subject lines (14 or fewer words) produced considerably higher engagement than longer subject lines.

Here are some findings pertaining to specific terms commonly used in e-mails that might be helpful to your own campaigns:

News terms: “News” (16.2%), “update” (4.9%), “breaking” (33.5%), “alert” (25.9%) and “bulletin” (12.5%) all saw better-than-average click-to-open rates, with “newsletter” being the only term to perform below-average in each metric.
Content terms: “Issue” (8.5%) and “top stories” (5.9%) were the only to perform above average in click-to-opens, although the latter saw slightly below average open and click rates. “Forecast,” “report,” “whitepaper” and “download” all saw below-average performance in each of the three metrics. “Research,” “interview” and “video” scored above average for opens, but below average for clicks and click-to-opens.
Benefit terms: “Latest” was the only to see above average clicks (8.8%) and click-to-opens (9%), while “special,” “exclusive” and “innovate,” while performing average in opens, fared far more poorly in clicks and click-to-opens.
Event terms: Each of these terms performed below average in opens, clicks, and click-to-opens. The terms examined were: “exhibition,” “conference,” “webinar,” “seminar,” “training,” “expo,” “event,” “register” and “registration.” The worst offender for click-to-opens was “webinar” at -63.5%.

So keep some of these findings in mind when crafting campaign subject lines. And for heavens sake, make sure first that your e-mails are relevant to your audience.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

9 Quick Tips to Get a Reporter’s Attention

When a reporter starts calling you a flack, you might want to rethink your approach. But even before that cringe-worthy moment, there are adjustments you can make to your media relations strategy – and they’re as basic as the core tenets of Public Relations. Some things never change for a reason. At the PR News Media Relations Conference and PR Boot Camp last week at the National Press Club, attendees were treated to dozens of great tips from reporters and editors who didn’t pull the punch when it comes to the thorny and annoying approaches they deal with every week.  While they appreciate the fine work of PR professionals, they used the podium to remind the audience of these tried and true methods of relating to the media:

1. To improve your chances of a reporter covering a story you pitch, consider approaching them on Mondays, weekends and holidays when there’s more of a news hole to fill. In other words, scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours.

2. Call a journalist. Assuming your phone still works, some reporters prefer to talk to a PR person rather than get pitched by email. Many reporters will admit it’s harder to say no to a PR person over the phone.

3. When emailing a journalist about a story idea, use her name in the salutation and reference her media brand.  Cookie-cutter pitches are turnoffs.

4. Compliment a journalist on a recent article he wrote – flattery never hurts. But don’t sugarcoat your complement, either; reporters have a great sense of smelly PR pitches.

5. Take the long view of your relationship with a reporter. Don’t expect coverage right away; keep in touch regularly and when the time and news is right, you’ll get treated fairly by the press.

6. If the reporter doesn’t have a radio show, don’t pitch a story for their non-existent radio program; if he doesn’t cover the food industry, don’t pitch a product about yogurt. Reporters need to do their homework before covering a story, so PR people should do the same.

7. If they blog, comment on their blog (in the actual comments section). Same with an article in which you can comment online. Be part of the conversation.

8. Create event opportunities in which you bring your key executives and a select group of media together. Send them a personal invitation and make sure there are refreshments at the event. Simple stuff: reporters like to be invited to events, they like to get out of the office and they don’t mind getting fed.

9. Despite email, social media, texting and all other mediums in which you don’t have to actually connect in person, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting with the press. If you can get to Yes with a reporter for a breakfast, lunch or an after-work coffee or drink – and assuming you have good table manners – you are guaranteed a better connection with that reporter. But you are not guaranteed coverage.

Do you have some tips to add to this list? Please comment and be part of the conversation.

Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz


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