Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Maintaining Brand Stature in a Crisis

From The Core: (This is a produce industry blog, but the point made here has application to the green industry.)

If you’ve been living under a rock or don’t have access to television, radio or the Internet, you might have missed the recent news about Toyota. First, they announced depleting sales due to the recent recall of eleven vehicle models following the malfunction of a floor mat entrapment and sticking gas pedal. Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, came the question about the functionality of the brakes on all of the company’s hybrids, including their famous Prius model. Ouch.

Toyota’s public relations crisis worsens on a daily basis, yet the company continues to push through each blow by responding apologetically and sincerely through several media vehicles to reach their target audiences – current and potential owners of Toyota automobiles.

As if they wrote the book on “crisis management,” Toyota started with a massive public relations campaign with press events in both the United States and Japan featuring politically correct statements from top executives for television, print and digital media hunters to push. On YouTube, the President and COO of Toyota North America posted a heartfelt apology video to Toyota owners promising to “fix the problem.” On the company’s website, a page is devoted to the recall and provides customers with a “Customer Experience Center” phone number.

Taking ownership for its problems, Toyota has exhibited a concentrated effort to own responsibility, taking control of its story and communicating with honesty and regularity directly to consumers. Toyota’s response comes across as apologetic and believable. But have they done enough to sway public opinion amidst the media storm? To find the answer, I sought consumer conversation on Facebook and Twitter. What better way to gauge consumer attitude? The disparity in reaction on the social media sites surprised me.

On Toyota’s corporate Facebook page, proud Toyota owners posted photos of their beloved automobiles and convey their undying faithfulness to the company, no matter what. With a quick Twitter analysis of conversation surrounding #Toyota, I find exactly the opposite, with statements that are primarily negative in nature discussing the company.

As a marketer in the fresh produce industry, I think about the public’s reaction to the spinach and tomato crises that occurred over the past few years. What if the spinach crisis hit today? Would it be a one-sided media story? Are we fully engaged in consumer conversation through the available media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to educate consumers, increase awareness and tell our story?

So what? In an industry where food safety is paramount, I wonder if we can all learn something from the Toyota crisis. Are we prepared for a major food safety crisis and recall from a public relations perspective? What will you do if your company’s name is making headlines and changing consumer perception for the worse about your brand? Or even if it’s not your company, but rather a commodity that you provide? Does your company have a crisis management strategy in place?

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