Using Social Media for Damage Control: Tips From Toyota's Crisis

Computer keyboard with social media keys

The best way to deal with a PR disaster is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Don’t ship a product before it’s ready, don’t hire short-tempered people to handle the phones, deal honestly with your customers and 99 percent of all potential disasters can be avoided. That elusive one percent is the percentage that’s out of your hands. This is when a trusted staff member drops the ball, the manufacturer fails you or things simply don’t work out. These disasters will happen, and you need to learn how to handle them or you won’t survive them.

Toyota experienced just such a disaster in early 2010 when faulty accelerator pedals led to the expensive and embarrassing recall of 2.3 million units, Mashable recapped. It’s difficult to fathom the size of the disaster because of the enormity of the recall. Somehow, the brand managed to handle the situation with grace and diplomacy, and actually come out on top.

An Opportunity in Disaster’s Clothing

The first and most important lesson that can be learned from this disaster is that every disaster is really an opportunity in disguise. It’s an opportunity that can backfire to be sure; nonetheless, it’s an opportunity to improve your brand in the public eye and to live up to your name.

Immediately following the recall, Toyota became a trending topic on Twitter, making it one of the earliest major PR disasters for the auto industry to take place in the social media era. The brand was trending for the wrong reasons, but all the same, Toyota had an opportunity to ride the crest of a high wave and use it to influence public opinion on the company in a positive and authentic way. It had a few options of how to handle the crisis — hire a company like, handle its reputation by releasing a video, give redemption coupons for new breaks, pretend like nothing happened, etc.

Toyota’s national digital marketing manager, Kimberley Gardiner, saw thousands of people using social media to reach out to the company. Gardiner and Toyota’s nascent social media team used the crisis as an opening for a solution, not for a weak, half-hearted apology on the behalf of the company. Instead, the team made a move that would ultimately strengthen and humanize the brand in the face of adversity.

Control Your Comeback

The brand hosted a Digg Dialogg video interview with Jim Lentz, the president of Toyota’s North American sales operation. By allowing the public to question Lentz in the controlled environment of an interview with pre-approved questions, the brand was able to put a face to the Toyota name. The video interview reestablished Toyota’s public appearance as an open book and trustworthy company for reliable transportation. There were more than a few people on Facebook and Twitter actually defending the brand, according to AdvertisingAge.

The fact that this was all controlled by Gardiner and her staff is key. The web is full of examples of what happens when the management of a brand goes off on social media without a filter and changes the online reputation, like the recent meltdown at Amy’s Baking Company Bakery Boutique & Bistro, as highlighted on the Daily Mail.

The Toyota Comeback in Brief

There are two big lessons that we can learn from Toyota’s recovery after the gas pedal disaster.

  1. Strike while the iron’s hot. Don’t wait. Develop a plan and put it into action while people are still talking.
  2. Make your comeback in a controlled environment. Too much can go wrong in a live, no-holds-barred interview.

Have you had to handle a PR disaster or are you prepared to do so?

This is a guest post by Oliver Stern: Oliver is a blogger, social media expert and online marketing consultant based in Cleveland.

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