Sunday, March 14, 2010

A World Renowned Company Responds to Crisis Via Social Media

What does a company with a spotless reputation -- based on years of safety, reliability and value -- do when it comes under fire for mishandling communications and producing a potentially lethal product? These days it turns to social media. That's exactly what Toyota has done in response to its massive vehicle recall begun in January 2010. The question is, has Toyota utilized social media effectively?

The home page of Toyota's web site provides a large and easily identifiable link to information about the recall. The recall page is filled with information and even breaking news (no pun intended). Owners can enter their VIN to see if their vehicle is included in the recall. Unfortunately, neither the home page nor the recall page directs visitors to Toyota's Facebook page or Twitter account.

Another site, Toyota Conversations, is powered by tweetmeme, and lists links to articles about Toyota, along with latest tweets and videos. Although the site is corporate controlled, the message is not, and many of the links are less than favorable to Toyota. A slight balance occurs with messages around the site detailing what Toyota is doing in terms of the recall and other information for owners' use.

Using Social Media

In its article, "The Cult of Toyota,"Advertising Age reports that though Toyota has been faulted in traditional media for its handling of the crisis, the company quickly jumped on the bandwagon of social media. They have created a social response room, staffed with 6-8 people who do nothing but respond and monitor Toyota's online presence.

It's answering consumers on its four Facebook pages; it created a Twitter chat with Jim Lentz, Toyota Motor Sales USA president-chief operating officer; and it created two new platforms, one with Digg and the other on Tweetmeme called "Toyota Conversations" to aggregate online chatter and allow Toyota to respond directly.

Monitoring the online chatter is probably a good idea. Toyota had no idea how big the social media blitz would be, but found out pretty quickly. Within hours of its January 26 Stop Sale announcement, online posts about the company had gone from about 500 in the morning to more than 3000 in the afternoon.

Doug Frisbie, Toyota Motor Sales USA's national social media and marketing integration manager, said, "Just by virtue of the volume of conversation you see out there online, [social media] is probably the most important [crisis-communication] element in many cases. How you respond and react to those [social-media] conversations really has become perhaps the most important platform for dealing with a crisis like this." (Interesting...Toyota has a national social media and marketing integration manager.)

Frisbie also said that the primary tenet of good social media strategy is to listen to your customers. He claims Toyota is not trying to guide or steer the conversations one way or another, but is using its social media platforms as a way to provide relevant information and as a means for customers to post questions or complaints and allow the company to respond.

Toyota on Facebook

Toyota's Facebook page boasts more than 84,000 fans, many of whom have written on the wall to show loyal support of their favorite car brand. Some have even started new pages to show support:

Frisbie says the beleagured automaker has seen its Facebook fan base increase by more than 10% just since the recall was announced in late January. Perhaps it's because Toyota is using the page as a way to stay interactive with customers, commenting on photos and providing helpful information in response to complaints:

Mark Lin Local Toyota dealership is refusing to perform warranty and recall service because I did not buy my Toyota Tacoma from them.

Toyota USA Hi Mark - All our Toyota dealers are equipped to perform the fixes. If you are encountering any difficulty with this, please feel free to call us at 1-800-331-4331 so we can discuss in more detail. Thanks for reaching out to us, Mark.
4 hours ago ·

The company does not post status updates, but seems to use the Facebook page just as a means for customers to interact with one another and Toyota.

Bringing Customers to YouTube

Toyota is also asking those who post prolifically on its social media sites to join its cause through video interviews posted on YouTube, showing an authentic, loyal customer response to the recall issue. The automaker is using employees as well, to offer feel-good video assurances to customers that Toyota is alive and well, as in this video with Ronny, a Toyota Master Diagnostic Technician:

The feel-good videos are interspersed with informative videos about the recall, as well as a chat with the president of Toyota (more on this later) and several promotional videos. The YouTube channel, with links to Facebook and Twitter, promotes the other social media aspects better than the regular Toyota website.

Digg It?

A half-hour live webcast with Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz was held, at the request of Toyota, on in early February -- and drew more than 870,000 viewers in the first 48 hours of its airing. A moderator asked Lentz 10 questions that had been submitted and voted on by the Digg community.

Mediabistro posted an interview with Digg Chief Strategy Officer Mike Maser, in which Maser talked about the Lentz interview. "Toyota is a smart organization. They realized social media is another important platform for them to use, and talking directly to consumers is a key part of building back trust for their brand."

Too Little, Too Late?

Some reports indicate that Toyota's social media response came too slowly and therefore was too late to stem the tide of damage that has occurred. Shiv Singh, the VP & Global Social Media Lead at Razorfish, reports on Mashable that, while Toyota's SIM Score, a basic equation for calculating how a brand is faring on the social web, went up after the January announcements, he expects the February numbers to be lower when all counts are in. He also suggests that Toyota was slow to respond and that the company must start initiating conversations with customers more directly using its social media tools.

It's too early to tell what's going to happen to Toyota, or whether its social media campaign is going to prove effective. The inevitable lawsuits are just beginning, and new reports continue to filter in about alleged faulty vehicles. However, one thing is certain: much like Johnson & Johnson's handling of the Tylenol-Cyanide crisis of 1982, Toyota's social media crisis plan will be talked about and used as an example -- one way or another -- by future PR planners and social media experts.


  1. Toyota has a credibility problem, but it's not because they've had some engineering issues with their cars. Automobiles are complex machines, and unforseen problems are going to crop up. That is the nature of machinery.

    Their real problem has to do with their initial response to the acceleration issues in many of their vehicle models.

    First, they stonewalled. Then, they denied. Then, they downplayed. And it was only after all of this failed that they decided to take the high road. And that's the problem now. Their social media campaign as detailed in your post is a good one, but I've lost confidence in them. And I think a lot of other people have, too.

    This entire episode reminds me of the exploding Pintos that Ford dealt with in the early seventies. Ford knew they had a problem, but the decision was made at the highest levels that it would be cheaper to pay off the occasional lawsuit than it would be to recall all of those hundreds of thousands of cars.

    So this type of business has occurred before. It's just that I had come to expect more from Toyota. I think it will take them a long time to recover the trust they have lost.

  2. Ray -- I agree with you in theory, although I would probably still purchase a Toyota. The interesting thing to me is that there are really some rabid loyalists out there. Check out their FB page -- there are people randomly commenting about how much they love their Toyotas. And even starting groups. Which in and of itself is a little strange to me about any product or company -- I can't think of anything I own that I love enough to inspire me to spend time commenting on that product's manufacturer's FB page.

  3. I own two Toyotas, neither of which has tried to accelerate through a wall yet, and I would probably buy another. The bar is set so low in the automotive industry right now that Toyota, even with all of its problems, is probably still one of the best brands on the market.

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  5. Rebecca: I agree about the Facebook groups. I often wonder exactly what sort of people are so devoted to a product that they feel it necessary to declare their unwavering affections. It seems a bit fanatical to me. It is even more disturbing how many of these "fanatics" are simply claiming that the acceleration issue is due to the actual consumer instead of the product. A news story emerged about this very issue concerning the acceleration.

    Also, I do not think it is a bad thing that
    "the company does not post status updates, but seems to use the Facebook page just as a means for customers to interact with one another and Toyota." If I had issues with my car, I would not want to read a bunch of status updates. Instead, I would want to know that the company was actually listening to me.

  6. Only time will tell whether Toyota's social media strategy will be able to repair the breaks in trust.

    While I agree that it's important for the company to show it is listening, I think Toyota is missing an prime opportunity by not posting FB updates. They could be broadcasting small success stories every day, such as

    - quotes from real people after their cars have been fixed;
    - quotes from the mechanics who fixed them;
    - a running tally of the number of cars they are getting (safely) back on the road; or
    - steps they are taking to avoid this in the future.

    I realize self-promotion won't fly, but it still seems Toyota is wasting a perfectly good opportunity.