In the wake of Toyota's high-profile recalls (and, in full disclosure, having recently purchased a new Toyota subject to the recall), it is an opportune moment to recognize that every company's crisis communications plan should include timely contact directly with customers. While Toyota's handling of the recall(s) has been criticized extensively - and rightly so - there's no need to pile on further. Our thoughts here are not pointed as much at Toyota, but rather at most large companies and their crisis communications plans for often omitting direct customer communications. It is understandable that media relations are emphasized during crises given the speed of information across both traditional and social media. Information in a crisis is usually fragmented and often inconsistent, in spite of well-crafted crisis plans and highly competent counsel. This makes it more difficult for a brand to manage and deliver its story and can ultimately lead to a wide range of (mis-) understanding on the part of various stakeholders, especially customers.
This challenge can be mitigated, and perhaps more than offset, by communicating directly with current customers, as early in the crisis as possible. Companies like Toyota, and of course smaller companies too, have customer databases and corresponding capabilities (e.g., an email platform) to contact those customers. Further, it's not as though an email from the company is not unexpected, as companies like Toyota and their dealers are often emailing customers for relationship marketing purposes. Yet for companies like Toyota, a direct-to-customer communications strategy is often an afterthought to crisis communications. Accomplished PR counselors can attest to this. As a former client eloquently stated, "it's easier to run ads and send out press releases" than to engage in customer marketing. During a crisis, this is truer than ever. However with some planning and forethought it's not only feasible, it's at least effective in conveying a sense of responsibility and consideration to customers. More importantly, communicating directly with customers can help refine a message that is harder to control through other (earned) media.
Which brings us back to where we will comment specifically on Toyota, who has now taken to publicly expressing its assertion that the media isn't treating it fairly and that competitors are pursuing "conquest" campaigns at its moment of weakness: they haven't sent out a single email to customers (certainly not to this one), other than the notices sent via dealers, that they were ready to service the recalls, weeks after the recall was publicly announced! Weeks and months after these issues first became public, they actually resorted to running online ads as "open letters to customers". Adding insult to injury, they have also started airing TV commercials to promote their recommitment and heritage as a manufacturer of reliable, safe, quality automobiles. Many experts, and certainly the people at our local Toyota dealer, believe that the brand will come back and be as strong as ever.
Our belief is that they have a lot of work to do, starting directly with their customers. Here's to other companies learning from this and incorporating direct-to-customer elements into their crisis communications plans.