Lessons from a crisis: An analysis of Toyota's handling of the recall crisis

Date01 May 2018
Published date01 May 2018
Lessons from a crisis: An analysis of Toyota's handling of the
recall crisis
Jinbong Choi
|Seohyeon Lee
Dept. of Media & Communication,
Sungkonghoe University, Seoul, South Korea
Dept. of PR & Media Studies, Jeju National
University, Jejudo, South Korea
Jinbong Choi, Sungkonghoe University, Dept.
of Media & Communication, Seoul, South
Email: choi0126@gmail.com
The purpose of this study is to evaluate how Toyota managed the recall crisis through surveying
public relations experts. By gathering and analyzing the perspectives of public relations (PR) exec-
utives and professors toward the Toyota recall crisis, this study tries to evaluate and measure
Toyota's public relations strategies for managing the recall crisis. To collecting data, 34 public
relations professors and 92 public relations practitioners were interviewed. According to the find-
ings of this study, PR professionals emphasized that Toyota responded poorly (slowly/dishon-
estly) and lacked communication with the public. With regard to improvements Toyota may
work on, PR experts advised not only to resolve internal corporate problems but also to
strengthen the relationships with consumers and obligation to investigate further. In regarding
with the lessons from theToyota's crisis, PR professionals highlighted that it is necessary to take
anticipated preventative measures and improve investigative duties and preparation for better
dealing with crises.
The Toyota recall crisis started with a single, horrifying car crash in
Southern California in late 2009. On August 28, 2009, an offduty Cal-
ifornia highway patrol officer and his family were involved in a fatal car
accident in San Diego, California, as a result of the gas pedal of his
vehicle (a Lexus model, manufactured by the Toyota Motor Corpora-
tion) becoming stuck and causing the vehicle to reach speeds of over
100 mph and crash into another vehicle, killing all four passengers in
the vehicle (Healy, 2010). Though the company had received hundreds
of sudden acceleration complaints and reports of multiple federal
investigations of the phenomenon before this point, Toyota did not
receive nationwide negative publicity until this incident (Bensinger,
2010). This accident was attributed to floormat entrapment; as a
result, by November 2009, Toyota had recalled 4.2 million vehicles in
the U.S. to address the potential risks associated with defective floor
mats, and an official Toyota response called for Toyota owners to
remove the floor mats from their personal vehicles (Bensinger, 2010;
Kim, 2010).
In December 2009, only 4 months after the fatal incident that
was attributed to floormat entrapment, another fatal crash was
reported in Southlake, Texas (Diaz & Trahan, 2009). The vehicle in
this accident was one of the vehicles announced as a recall model;
the driver of this vehicle had removed the floor mats in line with
the safety precautions previously recommended by Toyota (Diaz &
Trahan, 2009; Goodman, 2010). The cause of this incident was also
associated to an uncontrollable accelerator: Reports indicate that
the vehicle did not slow down before it flipped into a pond, and all
four passengers were killed (Diaz & Trahan, 2009). This incident
illuminated the fact that this vehicular issue was not solely attribut-
able to faulty floor mats, as previously suggested by the Toyota
Motor Corporation. Consequently, in January 2010, 2.3 million more
Toyota vehicles were recalled to rectify sticky pedals(Kim, 2010).
The same month, Toyota discontinued the U.S. sales of eight models,
including its bestselling Camry and Corolla sedans. The company also
announced that it would halt production for the first week of
February. By February 2010, Toyota reported a 16% drop in January
sales and that U.S. market shares had fallen to their lowest level since
January 2006 (Kim & Bailey, 2010).
As a result of crises, Coombs (2007) observed that three intercon-
nected threats to survival arise: (a) public safety, (b) financial loss, and
(c) damage to reputation. Due to the wide range of both causes and
consequences created by these three distinguishable crises, the pro-
cess of effectual crises management becomes increasingly difficult
and complex (Hargis & Watt, 2010). How, then, has Toyota managed
the recall crisis?
Toyota has seemingly focused on both the reputation and finan-
cial losses rather than public safety. The company has been criticized
in the news media for putting more effort into repairing its public
image than toward properly identifying the issues that were causing
Received: 18 October 2017 Accepted: 18 October 2017
DOI: 10.1002/pa.1688
J Public Affairs. 2018;18:e1688.
Copyright © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/pa 1of8

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