I was having lunch with a friend last week and he mentioned that his brother and he had wildly divergent careers. While my friend Larry chose to be a journalist, his brother followed in his father's footsteps and became a car dealer. This seemed like a good decision (money-wise) until last month's Toyota debacle started to unfold.
Larry related a jaw-dropping story to me that inspired this post. Aside from the extra money and replacement parts sent to the dealerships, Toyota did not provide its dealerships much guidance on how to handle the inevitable media crush. In fact, Toyota forbade a group of 1200 dealers from hiring their own crisis communication firm to help them deal with the devastating effects of the recalls.
Larry related his brother's own incredible experience as evidence of the disconnect. His brother received a call from the local ABC affiliate,and agreed to do a live interview. He was stunned when the local affiliate arrived with ABC national in tow! He had no media training and no approved key messages. Thank goodness, Larry's brother was able to keep his wits about him and not blow the interview.
What steps should Toyota have taken ahead of the crisis to help its dealers cope with a crisis of this magnitude?
- Imagine all the things that could go wrong: The first step in crisis planning is taking on the role of Debbie Downer. You have to sit around a table with your stakeholders and imagine all the terrible things that could possibly happen to the business. In Toyota's case, a massive safety recall certainly would have made that list.
- Spend the money to create a crisis communications plan. It's possible that Toyota headquarters had a plan before the crisis, though I sure couldn't tell. But one thing's for sure. The dealers were woefully unprepared to handle it. Even car dealerships need crisis communications plans.
- Be familiar with your local media outlets and cultivate those relationships. Be available year-round for car-related stories and be a go-to source of information. TV stations, especially, are under tremendous pressure to find a controversial public safety angle. Don't take a chance that you'll be the one they pick to "expose."
- Train your staff to recognize and react appropriately to the crisis. Every staff member should know their role.
- Get the advice of a public relations professional, even if you have to pay for it with your own money. No one has to go it alone, and there are plenty of well-trained crisis managers out there who are adept at steering clients through a crisis. Obviously, it's best to retain someone ahead of time so they can familiarize themselves with your business.