Toyota’s reputational challenges: a job for George Mitchell or Madeleine Albright?

Of the latest developments in the Toyota saga, the most potentially harmful to the company’s brand equity lacks the flash of its brethren, but packs a stronger long-term wallop. The most interesting new development in Toyota’s woes is the growing chorus of mumbles about the Prius, the world’s marquee hybrid vehicle and an icon in the green community.

Powering that story line is Steve Wozniak’s speculation that a software-related problem made his Prius accelerate on its own, and growing concerns that the Prius’ brakes are as problematic as the accelerators in its other models. Coming in a close second to the Prius is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s offhand statement (since retracted) advising owners not to drive their recalled vehicles until a new safety device is installed. Although LaHood said he misspoke, the damage was already done.

However, the most worrisome news for Toyota is the DOT’s apparent willingness to fine the company for failing to respond quickly enough to reports that its gas pedals were sticking. That cuts right to the heart of Toyota’s competence and regard for consumers. If the feds fine the company, it will legitimize accusations that the company didn’t move quickly enough to correct a potentially dangerous problem. Again, it gets back to consumers willing to forgive mistakes, but not inattention. It will be interesting to see whether Toyota greets the growing chorus of criticisms with the transparency we advocated in a recent blog.

One PR case study after the next has shown that as bad as things can get because of the facts, evasiveness makes it worse. Maybe the best thing the company could do is hire an outside investigator with sterling credentials to trace the problems from beginning to end, and cop out to whatever he/she dishes out. Sounds like a job for Madeleine Albright, George Mitchell or Sandra Day O’Connor.