Toyota discovers silence is golden

Listen. Bend a little closer. Closer still, it’s still very faint. Can you hear it now? I know it’s hard — it’s just a whisper, after all — but considering the deafening roar that has been the litany of Toyota recalls these last six months, it’s the sound of a seismic shift in policy from the corporate giant.

Toyota has just gone through another rough patch on its way to brand rehabilitation, yet this time there has been a complete absence of the allegations of cover-ups and corporate obfuscation that seemed to follow all previous revelations. That lack of recriminations is the sound of public relations working. It is the sound of the world’s largest automaker finally accepting responsibility with a minimum of fuss.

To wit, Toyota has agreed to pay a record US$16.4-million in fines for failing to disclose to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) its knowledge regarding the sticky pedals affected in its recent recall of 2.3 million cars. Oh, sure, Toyota denied the NHTSA’s allegation “that it violated the Safety Act or its implementing regulations.”

But, it seemed more like a pro forma reaction. In reality, the company finally determined what most of us would have thought an obvious truth — that simply paying the fine is far easier than digging in for a protracted battle that media and consumers alike have already determined is lost. Besides, with this debacle already said to have cost Toyota as much as $2-billion, the NHTSA’s fine is quite literally chicken feed.

Even more indicative of Toyota’s new-found “silence is golden” attitude is the company’s reaction to the news that the influential Consumer Reports magazine issued a “Don’t Buy” for Lexus’s new GX 460 for safety reasons (reportedly the first such warning in almost a decade). CR blamed the warning on the big ute’s propensity for lift-off oversteer — something the computerized onboard stability control should have corrected — and noted that such misbehaviour could cause rollovers (the consumer advocacy group did, however, point out that it was not aware of any GX 460s rolling over).

Instead of the denials that have surrounded previous allegations of malfunctions or delaying action as it waits for its own engineers to study the problem, Toyota Canada immediately suspended sales of the GX and offered the 149 Canadians who have already taken delivery of the luxury SUV alternate loaner cars. It’s difficult to argue with such an unqualified solution to a problem, especially when it’s accompanied by a total lack of strident denials. Or, as Josh Billings (America’s second most famous humorist of the 19th century after Mark Twain) said, “Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute.” Ditto recent recalls of the Sienna, Tundra and Highlander.

It’s been a hard lesson for Toyota on how to deal with safety issues/recalls/accusations seemingly without cessation. And, although Toyota Canada was perfectly right in recently noting that the floor mat problems that plagued American Camrys et al were not an issue here, the company still mishandled the issue. Certainly, reminding MPs investigating Toyota’s disclosure of the recalls that the company was not obligated to inform the federal government of any complaints is not the stuff of positive public relations.

Nor are such admissions, while technically true, likely to gain the confidence of consumers shaken by Toyota’s rapid fall from grace. Indeed, way back in January, Irv Miller, Toyota U.S.A.’s vice-president of environmental and public affairs, recommended a complete mea culpa regarding the sticky gas pedal issue. “We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over,” Miller said in a January 16 email obtained by the Detroit Free Press that was among the 70,000 pages of documents collected by NHTSA as part of its investigation into the unintended acceleration issue.

The email, according to the Free Press, was in response to another Toyota public relations executive advising that, “We should not mention” the accelerator pedal failures because “we have not clarified the real cause” and mechanical failures “might raise another uneasiness of customers.”

Considering how utterly and completely Toyota’s actions failed to quell the unease of its customers, I can think of no stronger proof that traditional public relations “spin” was a key factor in extending and magnifying the company’s woes. And that Toyota Canada’s recent policies — while just the start of a process that will hopefully see its brand rehabilitated — are a step in the right direction.

Photograph by: Toru Hanai, REUTERS