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Public Relations Crisis: Honesty Really is the Best Policy

One of the most exciting and challenging areas of public relations is crisis communication. Often times a crisis can blindside you and if you’re not prepared for it, it can spiral and grow into an out-of-control beast. Throughout my own professional experience and being a part of several client crises, I have learned two very important things:

1. Honesty is the best policy

2. It takes years to build a brand, and minutes to topple it

I can’t help but continue to be fascinated by the problems facing Toyota. It’s like a gripping horror novel, with each turning page the plot thickens. Toyota is once again the top subject in the headlines as an email recently surfaced from Toyota’s top U.S. public relations executive that clearly stated to “come clean” about the accelerator problems.

According to the Detroit Free Press, “the e-mail from Irv Miller came five days before Toyota launched a recall of 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. to fix gas pedals.” The government said Toyota hid the problem from U.S. safety officials for months and as a result slapped Toyota with a $16.4 million fine. Ouch.

During my college days, we examined and dissected two famous crisis and brand management case histories – the Bridgestone/Firestone tire fiasco and the Tylenol cyanide issue. Both of these are widely popular because they teach students how to properly handle a crisis and how not to handle a crisis situation. I am certain Toyota is a topic of conversation in many classrooms today.

As a result of the problems they’re facing, Toyota has experienced a 13.4 percent decline in sales (source: Detroit Free Press) and is fighting back with attractive incentives and finance options.

Will it be enough to save the brand, or is it too late?

There are a lot of things Toyota could have done to avoid further embarrassment and turmoil. For one, as the blog post title indicates, honesty really is the best policy. Own up to it. Admit there was a problem and take immediate action to fix it. Tylenol did it right when they recalled every single bottle off the shelves. By doing so, they instilled consumer confidence and protected the brand’s image, even if it was at a high price tag. Tylenol officials also demonstrated what appeared to be modesty and sincerity.

If you ask me, it’s one big dent on the Japanese automaker’s brand that will remain top-of-mind for discerning and cautious U.S. consumers when they go shopping for their next car. I also have to wonder if their most recent ad that boasts having the biggest sales month in their history is helping their image. Let’s hope that they have truly fixed the problem, and they are not putting more time bombs on the street!