BP letter teaches Toyota a lesson in crisis communications

1st Jun 2010

The communications controlled by a company during a crisis - not the media coverage - provide the best indicator of competency (or lack thereof).

If you can’t get the communications under your control right, you have zero chance of winning over others to carry your story forward.

That's why I characterised Toyota's crisis communications as amateur hour. The company's first open letter to customers hit the proverbial pothole and set a tone that's still present.

Quick digression -

My original Toyota post was republished on MediaBistro where, if you scroll down, you’ll see my mom and dad posted a comment disagreeing with my take. I guess unconditional love only goes so far.

Back to the topic at hand -

On the other end of the spectrum, check out the BP letter that addresses the oil spill crisis.

I realise a number of publications ranging from Slate to Advertising Age pummelled BP for poor communications when the crisis first hit. While I agree that BP should have been more prepared and quicker out of the gate, the letter shows they're on the right path.

Rather than allow the legal team to vet every syllable, BP articulates what they're doing with open and straightforward language. It's clear that someone at or near the top decided that commonsense should rule the day.

Now, before all the Mother Jones subscribers pile on, I'm not nominating BP for company of year. This is a communications exercise. Time will tell if the company's behaviour aligns with the words.

Moving on.

The contrast between how BP and Toyota start their respective letters illustrates the difference in mentality.

Toyota First Sentence: For more than 50 years, Toyota has provided you with safe, reliable, quality vehicles and first-rate service.

BP First Sentence: Since the tragic accident on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig first occurred, we have been committed to doing everything possible to stop the flow of oil at the seabed, collect the oil on the surface and keep it away from the shore.

Toyota squanders its opener with a walk down nostalgia lane and a narrative that seems out of a sales brochure penned by an intern. No, I take that back. I don't want to insult our interns.

BP establishes street cred right off the get-go, "Since the tragic accident", then crisply lays out its actions.

I can imagine Toyota arguing about an adjective like "tragic" in their war room. By the time copy was finalised, it would say "the unfortunate incident".

To the next line:

Toyota Second Sentence: I am truly sorry for the concern our recalls have caused and want you to know we’re doing everything we can - as fast as we can - to make things right.

BP Second Sentence: BP has taken full responsibility for dealing with the spill.

This is rich.

Toyota isn't sorry for the recall or the accidents. The company is "truly sorry" FOR THE CONCERN. This is the type of language gamesmanship that comes from legal owning final sign-off on the copy.

But you don't need a linguist to translate "BP has taken full responsibility".

This accountability from BP also accentuates the sign-off with two websites dedicated to the crisis (in contrast with Toyota blending its Recall Center into the main site) and toll-free numbers proactively asking for input:

We will continue to keep everyone fully informed about the events as they unfold. For current information on the spill and response plan, please use the following websites:

To make spill-related claims: (800) 440-0858

For assistance or information, please call the following 24/7 hotlines:

To report oil on the shoreline: (866) 448-5816

To report impacted wildlife: (866) 557-1401

No question, this was a professional job in which BP management got out of the way and allowed the communicators to perform.

Now, if BP's management would only agree to that media training session. The Guardian interviewed BP CEO Tony Hayward who offered:

"The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume."

Not good.

Lou Hoffman is president and CEO of The Hoffman Agency and blogs at Ishmael's Corner.

Replies (1)

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By armandmarius
13th Jun 2012 15:53

I heard a conversation between the salesman and a customer at Dodge dealer Arlington about Toyota`s idea to develop a private network with the car manufacturer or its dealerships. If this idea will be successful we will see a lot of car companies to implement this strategy, but still there are a lot of differences between Toyota and BP, in time of crisis I guess their crew is failing to provide a good letter that can carry the story forward.

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