Can Toyota Digg its way out of recall crisis?

February 8, 2010

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This story by Thomas Mucha originally appeared in GlobalPost.

As Toyota careened from one recall crisis to the next, the contrast was almost funny.

In one corner, we had pure Kabuki theater — a highly-stylized corporate drama playing out on the world stage.

At a hastily-called news conference in Nagoya on Feb. 5, Akio Toyoda — Toyota president and grandson of the company’s legendary founder Kiichiro Toyoda — bowed deeply in remorse before a gaggle of Japanese photographers. He then, dutifully, uttered phrases like “personal responsibility,” “deeply regretted,” and “very sorry.”

Finally, Toyoda announced a new “taskforce” under his control to look into quality problems, and skedaddled.

It was everything you’d expect from a Japanese mea culpa (minus the ritual suicide) — stoic, very public and, of course, entirely predictable.

But then something interesting happened.

I received (along with thousands of other people) an email, with an invitation to visit this page on the popular social media website Digg:

Toyota wants to hear from you — submit and vote up questions below!

With the recent controversy surrounding the Toyota vehicle recall, Jim Lentz, President and Chief Operating Officer of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, will answer the Digg community’s top questions for a very timely and topical live Digg Dialogg. He will be sitting down with Digg to provide perspective on what happened, what they’re doing about it and what consumers need to know about the recall. Submit and Digg questions from now until Monday, February 8th at 8 a.m. PT to decide which will be asked in this exclusive interview.

Of course, “exclusive” is pushing things a bit. Lentz has been on an old media blitz all week, yapping to everyone from the Today Show, to ABC News, to NPR about how it’s safe to drive a Toyota.

But the Digg Dialogue is different. In essence, Toyota’s U.S. boss is laying himself out before the site’s 40 million rowdy users, any of whom have a chance to ask him — in no uncertain terms and in a most public forum — WTF?

As of this writing, Digg’s minions have submitted 1,076 questions. They are, naturally, diverse in tone and subject. But they seem to be falling into several important categories.

Some ask about the recall and the company’s response:

* Omahahaha: My question is WHY? Why did it take Toyota so long, to even acknowledge that there were issues with their vehicles? Why did Toyota wait until they were under world-scrutiny, to even come forward and admit that there might be safety concerns, and other issues involved? How many more injuries and deaths would it take?
* symmetrical: How are you dismissing your earlier assertion that floor mats were to blame? Your attorneys will of course recommend you not answer this question.
* ttwiv: Apple co-founder Steve Wasniak says he has identified a software problem in his Prius that results in unwanted acceleration. Given his credibility in the software industry, have you considered contacting him to follow-up on his findings?

Others delve into more political aspects of the crisis:

* minnesotayoyo: The U.S. government is now a major stakeholder in both G.M. and Chrysler. In light of the recent Toyota recalls, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made official statements regarding the reliability and safety of Toyota vehicles. Do you think LaHood and the DOT are unfairly biased against automakers that the government does not have vested interest in?
* deafalla: Do you feel that GM’s partnership with the US Government is the reason this issue was so publicized? And does this bother you that a problem this big went on for so long? Does QA know of any other issues that may be outstanding that we should know of?
* akarsvp222: Do you think Toyota is being unfairly targeted by the NHTSA?

Another group is concerned with technical aspects of automotive manufacturing:

* coredump0x01: Why is Toyota and other automakers using an electronics-based “drive-by-wire” system for acceleration control instead of the more traditional cable and pulley system?
* jamak: Why is Toyota not re-examining its drive-by-wire systems in its models which have accelerating problem ? It seems obvious that it was not a floor mat problem and it will not be due to pedal problems. It seems to be due to faulty drive-by-wire system or a bug in the software inside this system. No point in blaming harmless things in the car while ignoring the hidden problem.

A bunch feel like Toyota marketing department plants:

* coldzero1120: “What is your leadership philosophy? How do you apply it to your leader position? How do you balance between finance and other values (eg. your people, family or your own values)? What is your most honored achievement in life?”
* gen8x: “I think Toyota clients are quite tolerant and sympathized to the situation. Do you intend to organize a public event name e.g. “Toyota Commitment Day” to say thanks for the clients’ patience?”
* raf4far: Is going on Digg Dialogg part of your campaign to try to get people trust Toyota again, and would you have ever been on Digg Dialogg if it wasn’t for this?

And, since this is the internet, the best subset is just plain funny:

* Dinsdale77: Dude why doesn’t Toyota make coffee? And, on a related note, is there anything about coffee that could make it work too fast, like a car?
* HeavySausage: Do you own a samurai sword?
* pstroll: how do i get corporate hair like you?
* ajv205: When will Toyota start making cars that can fly? That would be great.

Will this new strategy work? Of course, it’s too soon to know and much will depend upon Lentz’s performance when the interview takes place next week.

Moreover, the 14 previous Digg Dialogues have starred less controversial subjects like NFL running back Adrian Peterson, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, and Matt Damon. So featuring a harried suit in crisis is a departure for Digg, let alone for a traditionally conservative corporate giant like Toyota.

But in the grand scheme of crisis management — to say nothing of the vagaries of a fragmenting media industry and the idiosyncrasies of a worldwide consumer market — this feels like the right move for our times.

First, it allows a global audience to ask a global company about a global problem. Toyota is putting the world in the world wide web, as a way to respond directly to its cascading quality and image woes.

But best of all, the Digg strategy sidesteps well-coifed talking heads like the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer and ABC’s Brian Ross. That’s a big depature from traditional ways to get a corporate message out.

Instead, it puts the power — or at least the power to question — where it belongs: in the hands of people who actually might want to buy Toyotas again.

This recall crisis will only end with real people making real decisions about what they really want to buy. For Toyota, a more transparent and democratic approach now playing out on Digg could make all the difference.

More stories from GlobalPost:

Fordzilla vs. Japan

The magic of a name

Japanese consumers tighten spending

“Tokyo Vice”: Underground with the Yakuza


One comment

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Toyota might take a page out of Jaguar’s book. Several years back Jaguar offered its lease owners the opportunity to obtain a brand new Jaguar at the same monthly cost and no extra money required. I asked them why? and they said that sales were not good and they wanted to keep production up. The new and used cars were given a two-year complete service contract (no service charges for two years). This might help Toyota over its current problem. Bob Baker, Playa del Rey, California, USA

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