Toyota's Crisis: Prism Into How Social Media Has Radicalized Public Relations

True-confessions time: I used to be a PR person -- back when it was a very different profession than it is as I sit here in 2010, typing away on a Wi-Fied laptop, checking tweets and charging my smartphone so I can access my email when I go into the city later today.

I started out as a glorified secretary at Ogilvy & Mather back when cable was considered cutting-edge, and worked at a handful of other big New York agencies that churned out TV commercials in a steady rhythm. Later, after a decade as a reporter, I took the stock options bait, and was an employee for just under a year at Organic during the dot-com boom/bust year of 2000. Fortunately, I didn't vest.

My PR background explains why, when it comes to marketing and social media, it's the public relations ramifications, not the advertising ones, that interest me most. Even if there was some evolution in what a PR job was between my traditional agency jobs and my year heading communications at a digital shop, it was still basically the same: try to establish an image for the company, ferret out news and disseminate it, and build relationships with reporters, who had sole control of the PR distribution channel (though not necessarily in that order).

But then came social media. And how social media is changing public relations gets further and further from what I used to consider "doing PR." Today's case in point: Toyota Conversations, a site powered by Tweetmeme that aggregates tweeted news, images and video about Toyota, Toyota's own Twitter feed, and other crucial information for Toyota owners affected by the recall. (The site was built in partnership with our friends at Federated Media.) When you put something like Toyota Conversations in the context of PR as we used to practice it, it becomes crystal-clear how much things have changed. The site is a pretty unvarnished view of the issues Toyota faces. It's not often that you come across a corporate site with links to stories that criticize the company,  as in, "How Will GM Deal With Its Recall? Blame it On Toyota."

But it's not just that. When I looked at the site this morning, I was reminded that given the rise of social media, jumping into a conversation when it's most against you is perhaps the only way that a major company can appropriately handle PR these days.

I never had to deal with a crisis the magnitude of Toyota's -- I was only in the ad biz, after all -- but was certainly in the middle of situations where a bunker mentality prevailed.  Since reporters were in charge of the distribution channels, this usually meant that while the company I was working for at the time obfuscated, the reporters provided whatever transparency there was. We declined comment; they told the story, aided and abetted by off-the-record info from sources within the company. While reporters still play that role, now it's also up to the corporation to lay it all out bare -- as painful and threatening to the corporate psyche as that might be.

I do have certain quibbles with Toyota Conversation. Including tweets from Toyota owners would have been a good idea, particularly since Toyota tweets are readily available on Twitter Search and via Bing and Google. In the name of transparency, Toyota should consider it, even if there's some risk. Still, in creating a site like Toyota Conversations, the company has made the biggest leap it needs to make: to start down the path of honesty after a period when it wasn't honest with consumers or itself.

There's much to learn from Toyota's missteps. I'm anxiously awaiting the tomes from consulting firms about what went wrong. But they'd be overlooking something major if they didn't take into account that a massive retooling of PR, because of social media, is part of the process of recovery for any company faced with a consumer-confidence crisis.

5 comments about "Toyota's Crisis: Prism Into How Social Media Has Radicalized Public Relations".
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  1. David Culbertson from LightBulb Interactive, March 3, 2010 at 4:31 p.m.

    The Toyota Conversation website simply adds more noise - and thus more confusion - for Toyota owners who simply want to know two things:

    1. Is my Toyota involved?

    2. When will my car be fixed?

    3. In the the meantime, what should I do if my car experiences problems while I'm driving? answers #1 directly. There is no direct answer for #2. #3 is buried and incomplete. (Thank goodness Consumer Reports stepped up to answer that question).

    Toyota has spent millions on advertising and PR, but can't provide direct answers to the 2 of the 3 most obvious questions.

  2. Peter Himler from Flatiron Communications, March 3, 2010 at 5:01 p.m.

    Cathy --

    Thanks for your first-person take on how the field of PR has progressed over the years from a top down, command-and-control discipline to one where all truths eventually surface, requiring companies -- especially those in crisis -- to jump into the fray or suffer the consequences of runaway conversations.

    Nicely done.

    Peter Himler
    Flatiron Communications
    Twitter: @PeterHimler

  3. Kevin Gaydosh from O'Brien et al, March 3, 2010 at 5:04 p.m.

    This is the best friggin take on PR's position in today's media landscape that I've read in two years.
    Excellent, insightful and spot-on.

  4. Denise Morrissey from Toyota Motor Sales, USA, March 3, 2010 at 9:02 p.m.

    Hi David -
    We consider Toyota Conversations to be a natural extension of our efforts to not only provide information about the recalls but to also listen. The recall page at ( is designed to provide information for consumers. Our newsroom ( is set up to provide information for both consumers and media.
    On Facebook (!/toyota?ref=nf), we are hosting a vibrant conversation with over 81,000 folks who've taken the time to join our page. We reach out to folks on a daily basis via Twitter ( regarding their concerns in the hopes we can provide additional information for their use. And we've used our YouTube account ( to post informational videos that have been viewed by tens of thousands of people.

    Now we've launched Toyota Conversations as both a listening post and an opportunity for interested consumers to continue those conversations. Far from being "noise", we believe this is a great opportunity for folks to read stories about the recall in one place - at this point, it's probably the best compendium of recall-related news stories available. And, in addition, there are a multitude of links which point readers to more information in case they have further questions.

    As you point out, we aren't really able to answer the question "When will my car get fixed?" Simply put, it's not a question which is answerable by headquarters within the organization. Instead, it's a discussion which naturally takes place between each Toyota owner and their dealership.

    Thanks for your thoughts and, more importantly, thanks for the opportunity to continue the conversation!

    Denise Morrissey
    Toyota Social Media Team

  5. Debra Townsend, March 4, 2010 at 10:47 a.m.

    In the end, whether you are a savvy social media maven or a traditionalist, whether you have brilliant web strategies or spend millions on advertising, the PR is worthless if your organization doesn't do the right thing. PR professionals should be integrally involved in the thought process that leads to decisions, not just the spinning of them.

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