In public, Toyota is running apologetic TV ads and vowing to win back customers’ trust. Behind the scenes, the besieged carmaker is trying to learn all it can about congressional investigations, maybe even steer them if it can.
It’s part of an all-out drive by the world’s biggest auto manufacturer to redeem its once unassailable brand — hit anew on Tuesday as Toyota’s global recall ballooned to 8.5 million cars and trucks. The day’s safety recall of 440,000 of its flagship Prius and other hybrids, plus a Tokyo news conference where the company’s president read a statement in English pledging to “regain the confidence of our customers,” underscored a determination to keep buyers’ faith from sinking to unrecoverable depths.
In Washington, facing congressional inquiries and government investigations, Toyota through its lawyers and lobbyists is working full-speed to salvage its reputation. The confidential strategy — Toyota will say little publicly about its efforts — includes efforts to sway upcoming hearings on Capitol Hill and is based on experiences by companies that have survived similar consumer and political crises — and those that haven’t.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich, said Toyota representatives visited his offices seeking to learn all they could.
“They’re probing us. ‘What are you going to ask us, where are you going with this whole thing?'” said Stupak, who is chairman of a House subcommittee looking into Toyota’s problems.
Toyota, which reported spending more than $4 million on lobbying last year, declined to discuss details of its plans. The company has “beefed up our team” by hiring additional lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts to “work with regulators and lawmakers collaboratively towards a successful recall effort, ensuring proper, diligent compliance,” spokeswoman Cindy Knight said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Rough headlines for Toyota continued Tuesday. In other developments:
— State Farm, the largest U.S. auto insurer, said it had informed federal regulators late in 2007 about growing reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyotas. That disclosure raised new questions about whether the government missed clues about problems.
— Congressional investigators cited growing evidence that not all the causes of Toyota’s acceleration problems have been identified. A staff memo from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which had planned an oversight hearing for Wednesday, said there was substantial evidence that remedies such as redesigned floor mats have failed to solve problems. The hearing was postponed until Feb. 24 due to snow in Washington.
— Federal safety officials said they were examining complaints from Toyota Corolla owners about steering problems.
Toyota faces at least two congressional hearings besides Stupak’s, including the one delayed by snow. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and a longtime supporter of Toyota, said his panel will hold a hearing after the two by the House.
Their focus: floor mats that get caught under accelerators, sticky gas pedals and brake problems, and what the company and federal regulators knew about them.
Professionals who have waged major damage-control struggles say the best strategy for Toyota mixes apology, openness, details about a specific fix — plus a little help from friends on Capitol Hill. In recent days, American TV viewers have seen ads in which a soft-spoken announcer talks about Toyota’s dedication to safety and its customers.
“We’re working around the clock to ensure we build vehicles of the highest quality, to restore your faith in our company,” one spot says.
Toyota is expected to turn to its natural allies — lawmakers from states with Toyota plants or offices, which include Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia. Republicans are considered especially likely to back the company, whose workers are not unionized.
Toyota has been encouraging dealers to contact local members of Congress, according to Bailey Wood, spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association. About 60 of the 1,200 U.S. Toyota dealers planned to visit Washington this week, weather permitting, said Cody Lusk, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association. Their message: Toyota employs 34,000 people in the U.S. and accounts for 164,000 other jobs at dealerships and parts suppliers.
“They provide a lot of jobs, a lot of the tax base, and they want members to know,” Lusk said.
Toyota also flew 23 workers from plants around the country to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers’ staffs, emphasizing that the people who make the parts and build the vehicles care about quality.
One worker who tests cars and trucks said he takes it personally that he never found the gas pedal problem.
“I feel that I failed customers by not finding this issue,” said Jim Shuker, who works at Toyota’s Arizona Proving Grounds in Wittmann, Ariz. “We were not able to duplicate it.”
Friendly legislators can limit the duration of congressional hearings and ask favorable questions that would give Toyota officials a chance to tell their side of the story. Their goal would compress unfavorable news stories about the hearings to as few days as possible, while making sure the company avoids being confrontational.
“You’re being called up there so Congress can beat you up a little bit,” said Gene Grabowski, who chairs Levick Strategic Communications’ crisis and litigation practice. “By the time it gets to a hearing, you’re there to take some punishment, to listen to their concerns.”
In the meantime, Akio Toyoda, Toyota president, wrote an opinion column in Tuesday’s Washington Post in which he promised an outside review of company operations, better responses to customer complaints and improved communication with federal officials.
The Toyota recalls are the highest-profile congressional probe of the auto industry since a slew of deadly accidents prompted the Firestone tire recall in 2000. Most of the tires were on popular Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles.
Both companies suffered damage to their reputations, but both bounced back. Ford was proactive, briefing officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Congress and stressing that the safety of their customers was paramount. Firestone offered to replace its tires for free.
Things didn’t go as well for the manufacturer at the center of a salmonella scare, Peanut Corporation of America. The company’s products were linked to nine deaths and hundreds of cases of food poisoning, and it badly mishandled congressional hearings that showed the company shipped its products even after tests revealed they were tainted with bacteria.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.