Change the Story if Bad News Piles Up

Posted by Dan Keeney

This morning’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram included the story of a young special education teacher who died over the weekend when her car was struck by a train. I read the story and wished that she had been profiled in life because she had touched so many lives.

My wife read the story and the fact that popped out was that the woman was driving a Toyota.

And that is the legacy of Toyota’s ham handed approach to crisis communication over the past six months. If a person is killed driving a Toyota now, at least a part of your brain immediately jumps to the possibility that the car could have contributed to the circumstances leading up to the accident.

How does a person get hit by a train? The accelerator gets stuck? The brakes malfunction? Was she driving a Toyota? Yes. Oh.

Nick Morgan wrote a great piece posted on the Forbes Web site, “Almost Everyone Gets PR Wrong,” in which he details why it does not make sense for a company or individual defend their former positioning once there is a drumbeat of bad news. This runs counter to human nature — we want to fix the problem and return to business as usual. But that is a losing battle.

Morgan suggests that instead companies should change their narrative. Change the way they think of themselves and tell their story. Ultimately, they must change their story because whatever problem they’ve endured has changed the way their communities think of them.

Because our brains retain stories better than any other form of information, we develop shortcuts to handle all the information we need to in the modern world. The most important shortcut is the narrative. The narrative is the quick story that has developed over a long period of time for any organization, company or important public figure. It’s the way we store and organize the information.

Toyota had been the quality car. Volvo is the safety car. BMW is the performance car. Mercedes is the luxury car. Porsche is the sports car.

Now, as it works through the recalls, Toyota appears to want to return to its positioning as the quality car. It won’t work. They need to re-imagine what it is the brand can be, but quality is not it. For many years to come, if a Toyota is involved in a mishap, the public will question whether the car contributed to the wreck. A brand can’t simultaneously be connected with quality AND suspicion.

Instead, Toyota can build upon what it is learning during this period — that it needs to be a customer-focused company. This was Saturn’s original positioning and it was incredibly powerful. But over time, Saturn was folded into the GM umbrella and lost what made it special in the mid 90s. Today, the position has been abandoned with the death of the Saturn brand. For the most part, Toyota drivers love their cars and have rallied in defense of the brand. Their positive experiences with their local dealerships handling the recall have amplified their positive feelings. There is already a community there.

Toyota will only prolong its problems if it seeks to defend its former positioning as a quality car. It must move on and embrace a new narrative. Other companies that have found themselves in similar straits have learned that taking decisive action to change propelled them on a positive course and punctuated the end of their crises.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 16th, 2010 at 11:19 am and is filed under Crisis Planning, PR Stories, Public Relations Advice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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