A report published by UK-based marketing specialist Cream Global is sharply critical of Toyota‘s public relations (PR) management during its recent international recalls and quality shortfalls media storm.

The report, ‘Calming The Storm. Marketing Your Way Out Of Crisis 101’, also suggests that companies need to be aware of the growing use of social networking websites to highlight product related problems that can rapidly escalate, as well as being able to respond with effective digital media strategies.

It is claimed by the report authors that in terms of crisis management and reputation protection, Toyota’s strategy – such as it was – was one of information retention.

Toyota is heavily criticised for its strategic PR response to the unfolding media storm.

The report maintains that Toyota tried to manage a global problem by ‘controlling information in different territories’. As slightly different accounts surfaced on international and online news platforms, Toyota could, ‘at best, be seen to be withholding information’, the report authors suggest. But ‘at worse they could be accused of lying’.

According to John Stubbings, business director of London brand consultancy Cricket, the first big mistakes were made by Toyota early on.

“Toyota tried to silo the problem into individual territories and they forgot we live in a world of transparent communication,” he says. “They thought they could deal with different markets in different ways. A popular well known brand is like a friend to the consumer and why would consumers trust a friend that lies to them?”

Toyota is criticised for moving ‘too little and too late’ in response to a rapidly unfolding crisis that was hurting a core Toyota brand value.

“One of the core brand messages of Toyota has always been reliability. People don’t choose that brand for any other reason,” Stubbings maintains.

“I think the apologies will continue for some time yet, but any future campaign will need to be built around that core brand message. When times get tough, the one thing that gets companies through is the brand.”

The report goes on to suggest that such brand damage can be minimised by swift monitoring of digital media allied to rapid response. ‘In the modern digital world where reputations can be made or broken at the whim of the blogosphere, brand owners have to make sure that they are able to monitor who is saying what about their product, and deal with potential problems quickly.’

The Cream report also cites a number of case studies in which PR problems were effectively dealt with.

Domino’s Pizza, the report says, became aware last year – via social media monitoring and consumer focus groups – of growing customer dissatisfaction with their product. But instead of ‘attempting to sweep the problem under the carpet’ Domino‘s ‘chose to actually publicise their remedial actions in “The Pizza Turnaround” campaign’.

It is claimed that the media campaign attracted a lot of attention from other media channels, and that new product development proved popular with consumers. Other companies in the fast food sector are notoriously guarded about their activities, the report says, which made the actions of Domino’s seem all the more refreshing..

Domino’s even went so far as to surprise some of the previously critical focus group and deliver them a new, improved recipe pizza – capturing the reactions on film. “Those reactions you see are 100% genuine,” says Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications at Domino’s, “and the number of media impressions the documentary generated was incredible”.

Domino’s also chose to place a live Twitter feed on the Pizza Turnaround page that displayed the (largely) positive consumer feedback

A problem tweeted…

The old maxim says, “a problem shared, is a problem halved”, the report notes. It says that this can be updated for the social media age: a problem tweeted is a problem everyone knows about. Really fast.

Unhappy customers are able to make connections with other unhappy customers, and use force of numbers to make companies listen, the report notes.

The report presents a number of corporate PR problem case studies and goes on to present ‘ten golden rules of crisis management’.

The full Cream Insight report entitled ‘Calming The Storm. Marketing Your Way Out Of Crisis 101’ is available for free download as a pdf file here

Cream “The Innovation Exchange” produces 10 Insight Reports per year free to Cream subscribers, along with the world’s most innovative marcomms case studies and more at www.creamglobal.com