As his company's reputation slides out from under him, Toyota CEO Jim Lentz is listening to old-school experts
for whom the history of damage control stopped with the Tylenol poisonings in 1982.
Sure, there are basic principles of honesty and truth-telling that apply. And stopping production was necessary - although far from sufficient.
But Lentz forgets that the poisoning was something done to Tylenol. This recall is something Toyota did to itself - so the public's tolerance isn't remotely comparable.
What's more, don't you think the media world has changed a little bit since the early 80s? This profoundly different landscape - one in which consumers are more in charge than ever, where immediacy and transparency are essential elements of a response strategy - requires a new kind of dramatic action.
Yet there hasn't been anything bold or innovative in Toyota's response. It's predictable, shallow, disappointing. There's nothing that shows the company's commitment to leaving no stone unturned in understanding what brought them to this precipice.
Sure, they've done the obligatory things. They ran full-page newspaper ads - a mini-boon to the struggling industry - and cranked up a recall website and a Facebook page.
In fact, the website (Toyota.com/recall) is woefully inadequate - it's frigidly cold and unconvincingly mechanical. It's also dumb. Check out their messaging, below. How reassuring is it that the recall letters haven't even gone out yet? And do you really want sleep-deprived mechanics making a repair they've done before?
1. We're starting to send letters this weekend to owners involved in the recall to schedule an appointment at their dealer.
2. Dealerships have extended their hours - some of them working 24/7 - to fix your vehicle as quickly as possible.
And just today, Lentz announced a gimmicky Q&A with Digg for Monday. But his problem goes way beyond just making himself available for public questioning - and its just a manipulated event where he answers the questions he has chosen in advance.
Here are five bold and stretchy things he can and should do right now to show that he is stripping the company bare, in public. They are a combination of high theater, high transparency, high commitment.
Yes, you can trot the CEO out on the "Today Show" and he have him spout the spin-controlled talking points he's been primed on.
But cynical consumers wonder what he's really saying when the camera is off him. That's what matters. That's where the real agenda is revealed. Those are the secret sessions where the promise of putting the customer first is really tested.
Lentz-cam would solve that directly. Every minute, every second of his working day would be streamed live, on the web. That's the kind of naked transparency, corporate warts and all, that's required to - in the word we've heard time and time again since the recall - "rebuilt trust."
Lentz cam would be the Tylenol gold standard for the digital media era.
2. Hire Tom Kean
Akio Toyoda - who runs the big ship in Japan, announced on Friday that he will "personally will take the lead toward improving quality...by establishing a global quality task force that will conduct quality improvement activities region by region."
Three "qualities" in one sentence makes me more nervous than two of them would. More important than style, though, is substance. This is an epically bad idea. Insiders reviewing insiders - particularly given the Japanese culture's bias towards insularity - is a conventional corporate smokescreen that's about as trustworthy as the Chinese looking into the treatment of Tibet.
I would advise Toyota to hire Tom Kean - the former New Jersey governor who is generally acknowledged to have done a fine job running the 9/11 Commission - to conduct an outside-in investigation of what happened.
Kean would put together a team of experts in manufacturing and process management to conduct a headlight-to-taillight examination. Where did the systemic breakdowns occur? Why weren't early warnings noted, and why weren't the familiar dots connected (shades of 9/11) before a massive recall became necessary?
The announcement would be positive news for Toyota, a giant media win. Some might argue that the release of the findings - months into the future - would be a negative reminder of the crisis while the company is trying to put it to bed. Not so. It would reinforce Toyota's openness to self-examination.
3. Full transparency into the replacement bar.
Everything is riding on this cheap piece of metal. There's a video on their recall website which attempts to explain the fix, saying that "Toyota has determined that a precision cut steel reinforcement" bar will solve the problem."
But it's a far from convincing story. It's certainly not intuitive that a metal bar can reduce friction. And they try to make their point - and address a billion dollar reputational nightmare - with a crappy animated demo that looks less sophisticated than what a high-school computer graphics class could turn out. It's laughable.
What they need to do - and do immediately - is put their entire research program online. Show us how Toyota engineers developed the bar. That means everything should be posted - lab reports, technical drawings and analysis, and most important - before-and-after videos that show how the previous assembly got stuck under certain conditions. And how the replacement bar solves it
4. Launch a fund for the families of those killed.
Toyota has been conspicuously silent about this. They should immediate announce that the company is putting $19 million dollars into the fund for the families of the 19 people killed. And it is simultaneously launching a company-wide payroll contribution plan, so employees can express their grief and support by making a donation through their paychecks.
We should be able to check the amounts - and who contributed - in real-time, on the site. Create an internal competition within Toyota to raise money.
5. $1,000 off your next Toyota.
Everyone who now owns a Toyota, whether or not it's involved with the recall, gets a $1,000 gift certificate that's transferable and never expires.
These are big gestures for a big problem. But Toyota needs a monumental effort, and needs it fast. Because what they're facing is a much tougher pill to swallow than Tylenol ever dealt with.
And Dorothy, this isn't the 1980s anymore.