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You may know the expression, "it's like a car crash," to describe a fascinatingly bad situation. (You know you shouldn't stare, but you just can't look away.) In a somewhat grim and literal example, Toyota recently had a bad brush with a series of recalls and a blow to its reputation. The upside, however, is that this provides an excellent case study about how a communication failure in the workplace should be managed.

The Facts on the Toyota Recall

In 2002, Toyota began warning dealerships of an electrical issue in Camry models. Between 2007 and 2009, millions of Camrys faced recalls, but the reason given was for problems created by stuck floor mats. The company later admitted that stuck floor mats were only incidental to the problems in the vehicles. Soon the company faced widespread consumer outrage, censure from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), and a congressional hearing. Things had gone dramatically bad.

The Communication Failure

If this was an electrical issue, how was it also a communication failure in the workplace? Easy. In 2002, the marketplace didn't have to account for the degree of consumer engagement that services such as Twitter and Facebook bring. But over the next decade, the marketplace responded to these new media by becoming a place where transparency, accountability, and clear communication had more social heft than established authority. Toyota failed these new criteria in a couple major ways:

  • It changed its story from an electrical issue to stuck floor mats, failing to realize that in an era of leaks, Internet archives, and rapid spread of awareness through media such as Twitter and Facebook, inconsistencies could be widely exposed.
  • When it had to admit fault, its spokespeople were evasive rather than upfront, even when the CEO testified before Congress.

In this marketplace, communication is king. Most consumers understand that mistakes happen, and they look for companies that can acknowledge and correct mistakes. 

Note: For more information about Toyota and its communication practices, see the following Bovee and Thill textbooks: Business Communication Today, pp. 2-3, 25, 202-203, 220, 293; Excellence in Business Communication, pp. 2-3, 26, 256; and Business Communication Essentials, 19, 136.

This post was written by guest contributor Pam Hurley, Hurley Write, Inc.

Image via Shutterstock.com