What’s the PR Price of Toyota’s Recall?

Public relations experts specialize in reality–particularly difficult realities. We know that the “fight or flight” response resides deep within human DNA and the DNA of the brands the we humans create. During challenging times, many chose to ignore the truth, to cover it up, or to slip into total denial. But the truth always prevails in the end, simply because it never goes away.

When mistakes are made, brands shouldn’t be afraid to appear human. The public, after all, is comprised of individuals, and each of us has our own moments of weakness, disappointment and poor judgment. For those people and brands willing to face the hard truths in life, the public—especially the American public—can be surprisingly forgiving. We love a comeback.

So when Toyota announces yet another recall, this time involving a whopping 7.43 million problem vehicles, the general public feels a little conflicted. We’re happy the brand accepted responsibility for its mistake, but we also want to know why this happened, and keeps happening. Events like these lead PR professionals to ask: Just what is the public relations toll of a recall?

The answer begins with the severity of the mistake. No one wants to drive in a car that is going to kill them, but in this case the culprit wasn’t a sticky accelerator pedal but a mere power-window switch. So our imaginations don’t conjure images of horror, just inconvenience and discomfort. Toyota should be able to bounce back from this. Right?

Well, maybe. Just like a dropped ball, brands with multiple bounce-backs tend to rebound with a little less energy each time. Sure, a power-window switch is no big deal, but the perception of an inability to maintain quality is, and that is the public relations challenge Toyota faces. What’s next, the public thinks, defective seat belts? Whatever the underlying causes for these lapses in quality control, Toyota needs to do better.

The public’s ability to forgive has its limits. After all, we have to learn from our mistakes. Toyota needs to do the same.