A Glimpse of the Feeding Frenzy Toyota FacesBy Michelle Krebs February 19, 2010
This week, Toyota President Akio Toyoda and other Toyota executives are scheduled to testify before two Congressional committees regarding the automaker's recall of millions of vehicles. The committees, which will hear from other industry experts as well, will attempt to answer the question of whether the public is at risk.
Toyota's recalls have generated massive amounts of global media and dozens of lawsuits. Toyota has hired a crisis management team to help with the hearings and the public relations effort that got off to a bungled start.
For a glimpse of what might be going on behind the scenes leading up to the hearings and how the hearings might play out, AutoObserver turned to Ford public relations veteran Jon Harmon, now an author and crisis management consultant. His book, Feeding Frenzy, published last October, tells the riveting behind-the-scenes story of the deadly rollover accidents involving Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone and subsequent recalls. Like Toyota is now, Ford faced intense media scrutiny, aggressive trial lawyers and an angry U.S. Congress.
Here's an excerpt covering Ford's preparation for and experience in Congressional hearings:
[Louisiana Congresman Billy] Tauzin sent his closest aide and spokesperson, Ken Johnson, and two other staffers, first to Dearborn and then to Nashville, to probe into some of the most contentious issues before the hearings.
On August 25, Ford's Helen Petrauskas and Tom Baughman welcomed the House Committee team and led them to a conference room on the second floor of WHQ (World Head Quarters/Glass House). Petrauskas and Baughman answered most of the Congressional staffers' questions in direct, conversational language.
When the Washington guests asked for documents that had been referenced, the Ford hosts readily produced them. The meeting appeared to be going well. Conversation was often light. When it was time for lunch, sandwiches were brought in so work could continue. By mid-afternoon, the staff investigators seemed pleased with the answers they had received along with the promises the Ford team had made to forward a number of additional documents that could not be located readily.
Tauzin's investigators would return to Washington for the weekend, then visit Firestone's Nashville headquarters the following Monday. Johnson remarked that Ford was cooperating much more readily than Firestone. He left us with the clear impression that Ford's helpfulness and Firestone's intransigence would be reflected in the tone of questions the two companies' executives would face in the hearings the following week.
However, Johnson's demeanor would change when he stepped in front of media hungry for their next story. There was more political gain to be had for himself and for his boss by attacking both companies. Johnson and Tauzin would not hesitate to criticize Ford on any issues where they perceived vulnerability. The fact-finding visits by the investigators were all about finding weaknesses and contradictions in the two companies' stories. Congress would have plenty of hard questions for both companies. All we could do was to try to tip the balance of doubt away from Ford.
A pack of media had gathered outside the Glass House, undoubtedly alerted by Johnson that Congressional investigators were in the building. As the three staffers walked out of the building to the Lincoln Town Car limousine we had arranged to take them to the airport, Johnson talked to the journalists, paying particular attention to the two television cameras. Congress was determined to find out for the sake of the American public, he told them, why Ford and Firestone had waited so long to do anything about the deadly accidents.
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Ford's Public Affairs team had triple duty in the two weeks leading up to the hearings. In addition to handling the deluge of media calls as well as the various pieces of employee and dealer communications, we now had to help Governmental Affairs and our lawyers prepare the written testimony and the vast amount of backup [Ford CEO Jac] Nasser, Petrauskas and Baughman would need as they were grilled by Congress. [Governmental Affairs] conducted several extensive training sessions to prepare the executives for the questioning, similar to the media training that Public Affairs routinely conducted for company executives preparing for interviews.
But there were fundamental differences, primarily in tone. In addressing Congress, deference was essential. An executive was not used to maintaining humility and respect for a person asking tough, even rude, questions. But a witness at a Congressional hearing must never forget to maintain composure and mannerly behavior at all times. The last thing you wanted to do was to get into an argument with a Congressman in a hearing, an argument you would not win.
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Before the evening was over, Firestone would take additional heat over the phased recall. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) began her questioning of the Firestone executives benignly enough, asking a series of simple factual questions: how many tires needed to be recalled and how the plan for a multi-phase recall had been devised.
Her pleasant, friendly demeanor was disarming. [Bob] Wyant [Firestone's vice president of quality] grew more confident in his responses as she continued to ask easy questions. She asked what the states in the first phase had in common, and Wyant answered that they were southern states with extremely hot summers as well as long stretches of highways where people might drive at high speeds for a sustained period of time. Watching the proceedings on a C-Span feed back in a conference room on the 10th floor of the Glass House, I remember saying out loud to whomever was there to listen:
"Watch out. She's playing this like a courtroom prosecutor. She's about to go for the jugular."
And just like that her demeanor did change. She began providing the bloody details of one tragic accident after another. Then she asked the Firestone executives what they thought all the accidents she had mentioned had in common. No one answered, instinctively knowing that no good could come from any response they might make.
Every one of the accidents, Wilson said, had occurred in New Mexico, which wasn't included in either the first phase or even the second phase of the recall. She asked if the executives knew where New Mexico was -- did they know that the summers could get hot there, and that the state had rather long stretches of highways?
Her voice full of emotion, she declared that Firestone had left the citizens of her state to continue to drive on tires the executives knew were defective. Then she circled back to some of the earlier testimony the Firestone executives had made, as well as their statements in the media, insisting that they hadn't known about the tire troubles until Ford had analyzed the tire company's claims data. She did not believe them, she said.
We've seen claims in the last month that you didn't know until July of this year, and now you're working around the clock to find out what's wrong. That's rubbish. You knew you had a problem a long time ago. You had recalls in 18 countries. This committee's staff has uncovered memos going back to 1997 where you knew you had a problem and you didn't do anything about it.
And on it went. Every committee member wanted a chance to pile on the beleaguered tire maker. Like a pro athlete in the waning moments of a game already won who is still looking to make a big play so he'll be featured on the ESPN highlight show, each Congressperson was going for that killer sound bite that would make all the local news stations back home.
About the author
Jon Harmon spent 23 years years in Ford Motor Co.'s public relations department, including crisis management. After leaving Ford, he became vice president of Communication and Reputation at Navistar. He now is a communications consultant and author. He founded Force for Good Communications, a consultancy offering services ranging from brand-building media relations to crisis communications. His blog provides insights into Toyota's current dilemma.
About the book