Friday, March 5, 2010

Why Can''t Toyota Come Clean with Consumers?

Over the past few weeks, Toyota has been chastised harshly for mishandling its recall of 8 million vehicles and misrepresenting the facts to consumers and federal regulators. And, rightfully so.

At the same time, Toyota’s powerful public relations machine has been pumping out commercials and newspaper ads showing how dedicated its employees are and the positive financial impact Toyota has on U.S. communities where its manufacturing plants are located.

What’s happening here is a strategic ploy by Toyota to shift public opinion by touting its commitment to consumers and the company's good citizenship while distancing itself from the lawsuits and congressional hearings that are dominating the news. Frankly, this is a disturbing attempt by Toyota to dodge the central questions -- why are your vehicles malfunctioning and how long have you known about it?

Toyota's public relations strategy could have serious negative consequences if the auto company does not get to the root cause of its recall problems and come clean with consumers. To date, it appears the quick fix approach Toyota is using with regard to sudden, unintended acceleration and steering malfunctions isn’t working. More than 60 Toyota owners have filed complaints with federal officials in the past month stating ongoing problems with sudden acceleration despite their vehicles being “fixed” as part of the massive recall.

These post-recall complaints suggest Toyota doesn’t know what the root cause problem is, nor does Toyota have a meaningful solution to fix it. Perhaps this is why Toyota cannot come clean with American consumers? Furthermore, as the problem persist, Toyota's public relations strategy could backfire. Consumers are not stupid. They know Toyota is trying to soft-pedal the problem by showering us with touchy-feely commercials that are designed to boost consumer confidence in their flawed vehicles and restore integrity to Toyota’s tarnished image. What Toyota needs to understand is this situation could become another Enron if Toyota doesn't come clean with consumers and tell us the whole truth.

No one is suggesting Toyota has been corrupted from the top down. Rather, Toyota has a technology flaw that is causing some of its vehicles to lose control and injure or kill people. But, instead of coming forward and being candid with consumers, it appears that a handful of managers within Toyota's North American operation made serious mistakes in judgment by hiding the truth and failing to candidly discuss the problem. It is also possible that these same individuals kept evidence from federal regulators and lied to unsuspecting customers about the potential risks of driving certain vehicles. If these accusations are true, Toyota cannot tolerate such behavior. These people must be fired and, possibly, prosecuted. It runs against the grain of Toyota's values and culture of excellence.

With each passing day, more negative revelations are being uncovered about Toyota’s mis-management and how they either ignored or covered-up the truth on the sudden acceleration problems. This is a serious indictment against a once-proud company that has dropped the quality ball and placed profits and market share ahead of its customers’ safety and welfare.

Nobody wants to see Toyota fail despite its gross mishandling of the recall problem. After all, Toyota, Lexus and Scion dealerships employ more than 115,000 people. And, since 1991, Toyota has awarded more than $464 million to numerous organizations across the nation.For more than 50 years, Toyota has been a respected and honorable company in the United States.

But, unless Toyota Motor Corporation’s president, Akio Toyoda, wants American consumers to change his name to “Mud,” he’d better take action and fire those executives who allowed this problem to become the company's worst nightmare. Mr. Toyoda should also direct his team to come clean with consumers. For starters, it would help to know the whole truth and whether or not Toyota really understands what’s causing its vehicles to go out of control. Until Toyota gives us all the facts, consumers are not going to trust this once-proud brand and buy its vehicles.

About the Author. Thomas Hinton is president of the American Consumer Council, a non-profit consumer education organization with over 92,000 members in 44 states. He can be reached at:

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