For the first few months of the Great Recall Fiasco, Toyota took it on the chin. The company was slow to respond to criticism from consumers, regulators, and the press, and when Toyota did speak, it did so politely and demurely, apparently willing to shoulder the blame alone. Said Akio Toyoda, "As the CEO of the company, I will make sure that we will never ever blame the customers going forward."
And then: James Sikes.
March 8, 2010: on the right coast, Toyota made a major appearances before congress to reassure elected officials that the company has done everything in its power to build safe cars. On the left coast, Sikes made live news as the California Highway Patrol helped him slow his (allegedly) runaway 2008 Toyota Prius on the interstate. The timing could not have been worse for Toyota.
Of course, that timing, combined with Sikes' financial troubles, was exactly what planted a seed of doubt in the automaker's mind. Fortunately, while critics had been hammering away at Toyota, the company had been quietly working on something totally new: a "swift market analysis and research team", or SMART, designed to investigate just such incidents at a moment's notice. And investigate it did.
The 2010 Toyota Prius
SMART proved that Sikes, not his Prius, was likely to blame for the incident, and hinted that it could've been a hoax. SMART also determined that driver error, not a mechanical fault, had been the cause of a similar accident in New York.
True, these investigations have not always gone so smoothly: in Orange County, California, SMART revealed that a recall repair to the gas pedal assembly of a Toyota Camry had been improperly performed. But on the whole, SMART's findings have caused a shift in public sentiment, which has given Toyota enough fodder to begin defending itself.
Buoyed by these successes, Toyota has become increasingly aggressive in its PR tactics. The company is working to get ahead of issues before they spiral out of control, and that stance has fans cheering again. It also has critics charging that Toyota has crossed a line and is playing dirty to keep its name clean.
Most recently, Toyota sent an email to reporters claiming that Clarence Ditlow -- executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, which has been critical of Toyota -- was in cahoots with attorneys prosecuting Toyota for defective products. (Specifically, Toyota claimed that Ditlow and the CAS received money from those lawyers.) The company has made similar charges against Sean Kane, head of the consulting firm Safety Research and Strategies. Both Kane and Ditlow have denied the accusations.
What's more: Toyota's proactive endeavors aren't limited to PR. The automaker has also sent a swarm of lobbyists to D.C. to run a distraction campaign on Capitol Hill, presumably in hopes of short-circuiting the well-publicized investigation being carried out by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
So the question is: how aggressive is too aggressive?
Akio Toyoda, founder's grandson, and Toyota President
Clearly, Toyota has the right to defend itself against shysters like Sikes. In fact, every automaker should have its own version of SMART in place -- not only to filter out bogus claims, but also to identify safety issues before they become PR fiascoes. Heck, if the SMART team had been around a couple of years ago, Toyota might've responded quicker to initial allegations and thus avoided many of its current troubles. (That said, Toyota is also obligated to provide a degree of transparency about complaints and investigations -- something it's not currently doing.)
Toyota should also be allowed to have its team of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. As long as politics and commerce remain closely intertwined (and as a recent Supreme Court ruling implies, that's the way things are going to be for a while), companies will have lobbyists. Its distraction campaign may be unseemly, but so far as we know, Toyota hasn't done anything illegal, and other lobbyists for other companies and NGOs are likely doing far worse. That doesn't mean we like the system or that we agree with the Supremes' ruling, but technically, Toyota is operating within the law.
Running smear campaigns against oversight groups and trial lawyers, however, is not such a great idea, and in fact, it could easily backfire. If the allegations against Ditlow and Kane are true, then yes, Toyota is within its rights to call them out; if untrue, however, this could result in some costly court proceedings for Toyota. And more importantly, attacking individuals rarely makes for good PR: at best, it makes companies look like whiners, and at worse, they come off like bullies. For a company trying to buff its image, neither is a great move.