Toyota is going through hell right now, and in the typical frenzy that occurs in these media crazy times, they have become the butt of jokes, from late night talk hosts to YouTube.
We can all sit on the sidelines and snicker, but the fact is, anyone who manages a company or station should get a little shiver when they read about Toyota's problems. That's because deep down inside, we know the same thing could happen to us.
Toyota had a sterling reputation for decades, bolstered by great reviews, a strong track record for building reliable vehicles, and fabulous word of mouth.
Does it all just get blown up because of the company's current problems, which seem to be getting worse by the week? Or does the equity of the Toyota brand allow them to salvage their image, and ultimately, their vehicles sales?
That's the same question that a consistently strong radio brand ought to ask when something goes wrong with a promotion, an event, a contest, the transmitter blows up, or even when a personality misbehaves, breaks the law, or otherwise embarrasses the station. How big is that "good will gas tank" when something goes wrong, and a station is faced with a public relations nightmare?
It all comes down to how you handle it, and in a recent blog entry, media maven Joe Jaffe discussed Toyota's travails and what the company ought to be doing to turn perceptions and reality around. Here are a few of his points, paraphrased by me.
First, the day when you could simply run a full page ad in USA Today and The New York Times are over. That's not where most people are. Instead, using YouTube, Facebook, and outlets that are viral and more inclusive is the way to go.
Second, make sure that your website tells the right story at a time when the station is experiencing one of these difficult, embarrassing moments. It's the place to get in front of the problem, and address it head on.
We see this all the time in radio during a crisis when the website has not been updated and simply looks and feels out of it.
Third, social media can help in a big way. As Jaffe notes, Toyota has surprisingly few followers on Facbeook and Twitter. This is because "the first people to turn to are customers, loyalists, enthusiasts, fans, friends, followers, advocates, evangelists... hell, even critics. These groups of people don't magically materialize overnight. They are built, earned and nurtured over time."
They aren't alone. A new study by ForeSee Results shows that only one-fourth of the top 100 online retailers have a Facebook presence; another quarter have fewer than 10,000 fans.
Using the connectivity of social media - as well as a radio station's email database - can quickly communicate to your customers the problem and what you're doing to solve it. Building these networks of core followers isn't just a good idea so you can promote ticket giveaway or celebrity guests on the morning show. This is where communities are built and nurtured, especially useful during crunch time.
Of course, as Jaffe points out, Toyota has also been slow to "join the conversation" on Facebook. A commitment to dialogue with listeners/customers is also so essential to transparently working through problems and regaining brand equilibrium, as opposed to simply letting "fans" or "friends" bitch and moan about how lame the company is.
Fourth, Jaffe talks about anticipating problems before they occur. The importance of "contingency planning" cannot be under-estimated, as shown by Toyota, a great company that has now gotten caught - multiple times - in compromising situations with its vehicles and their mechanical/computer problems. These dilemmas are worsened by the company's lack of responsiveness and adaptability.
On the radio front, how vulnerable are stations because of smaller staffs and harried managers? How many contests are being executed without the proper rules? How many poorly conceived events aren't properly secured or managed? How many important things are simply slipping through the cracks because of a lack of time and manpower - all with the ability to bite a station where it hurts?
On the technical side, how many stations now lack the "redundancy" necessary when there's an engineering problem or even an "act of God" that disables the tower, the transmitter, and other key components of the broadcast chain? The website and the stream (that so many broadcasters fought) could be the salvation the next time something goes technically awry. In radio, there can never be too much "contingency planning" because as we all know, anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Fifith, there's the reaction from the top. In Toyota's case, they have been painfully slow to provide explanations and even truth from the corner office. Akio Toyoda, president and grandson of the company's founder, took forever to face the media. This has led to more speculation, doubt, and questions about Toyota's intentions. When disaster strikes, stonewalling never works. Tiger Woods learned this, and now, so has Toyoda. It may cost his company billions.
Whether in a serious auto recall or a major mess for a radio station, this is where leadership rises to the top. In our fast-paced media and Internet world, it is more important than ever for CEOs to step up, get out in front of the problem, and meet the crisis squarely. You can question big salaries and bonuses all you like, but these are the times when corporate moguls earn theirs.
Finally, when the problem hits the station - or car company - across the street, squelch the urge to pile on. There is a "karma train" and it's just a matter of time before trouble arrives at every door. Note that in the middle of Toyota's mess, Ford had to issue a recall of its own. And now Honda is experiencing problems.
GM, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, BMW and the rest would be wise to resist the temptation to try to make hay from Toyota's multi-recalls. Toyota's backfires may make them feel good because for so long, the company enjoyed much media love and adoration.
There's no need to hit Toyota when they're down, because consumers have already gotten the message. Toyota will either do a better job in the coming weeks of addressing its problems and its PR - or they won't. In the meantime, a car company with a good product and brand that provides quality and economy, along with being well-marketed and connected with consumers, will do just fine while Toyota suffers.
Toyota has finally started running heart-warming, nostalgic TV spots that address their problems, and underscore the hard work that is being done to turn their problems around. They are well-produced and they take responsibility for the company's mess. If it were only that easy. And the current wrangling with ABC-TV affiliates in the southeast over what Toyota feels are "excessive stories" muddies the ad waters even more.