There is much boards can learn from how one company, Toyota, has vigorously recovered ground online. The fact that few companies have recently endured such a crucible in the court of public opinion only underscores the relevance of the automaker’s digital renascence.
Toyota is a particularly telling example as much for the company’s deficiencies during the recalls of 2010 as for its evolving proficiencies in their aftermath.
Let’s take a look at a few particulars. In May 2010, a Google search for “Toyota class action” confirmed a decisive edge for the plaintiffs, as numerous paid ads suggested reasons to sue and offered free consultations if you were interested. For organic (or non-paid) searches, Toyota was bested by Parker Waichman and Alonso—additionally unfortunate, as sophisticated Web searchers (like reporters) turn straight to sites highlighted as a result of concerted search engine optimization.
Parker Waichman likewise dominated YouTube. On Twitter, plaintiffs’ firm Arias Ozzello & Gignac was talking to more than 800 followers on Toyota-related topics. Toyota’s account, TweetMeme, was perceived to be highly censored, so its impact was curtailed.
Of all the moves Toyota made to answer these online challenges, none was shrewder than its choice of what keywords to buy and control. In its dedicated Google adwords campaigns, Toyota thought like its adversaries by seizing on “Toyota recall,” “Toyota problems” and “Toyota issues.” The company was buying up negative terms about itself, not just positive or generic ones.
Such foresight suggests strategic assets beyond the obvious opportunity to own something before your opponents have a chance to use it against you. It suggests that Toyota’s communications advisors have been working with enterprise risk management officers and lawyers, as well as with brand managers. Ideally, all act as one to identify risks and to deploy digital strategies specifically around those risks.
Had Toyota bought these negative terms before its product liabilities arose—as with most risks, partially predictable through enterprise risk management—the public discourse would likely have been quite different, with so much of the shrill, negative content and tone simply overwhelmed by the ready corporate resources.
The impact for Toyota on the paid and organic fronts has been tangible. A July 25, 2011, search of Google News for “Toyota recall” showed—despite a recall of 82,200 SUVs in late June—no plaintiffs’ lawyers listed among the top 10 rankings. Yet there is prominently featured news of a Toyota safety campaign as well as the dismissal of claims against the company.
Critically, Toyota supports its branded online content with a strong social media presence. You can find the CEO in the social media; you can hear Toyota supervisors frankly address recall issues on Facebook. At the same time, Toyota enthusiasts are posting positive content— some even started a Facebook page called “Defend Toyota.”
For directors, there are at least three practical lessons in this saga:
- Understand that the Toyota example is not merely valid for manufacturers or for companies selling in mass markets. Quite to the contrary, the more targeted an audience, the greater the stakes online.
- Look for evidence that your company’s Internet team is multidisciplinary and well integrated; that its work is informed by expertise from both the “positive” side (marketing, brand development, etc.) and the “negative” (crisis management, litigation- related communications, etc.).
- Is your company waiting for a disaster to build state-of-the-art digital and social media fortifications? It must not. Yes, Toyota’s enhancements were inspired by massive recall litigation, and the company’s actions are additionally impressive because they were taken under such duress. Yet Toyota’s accomplishments can be surpassed by companies that strengthen Internet strategies and resources ahead of need.
The benefits will be palpable in every area of traditional boardroom concern— and that includes share price. By the summer of 2010, at the height of the crisis, Toyota’s shares had plummeted from a high of $91 to the high $60s. By January 2011, the stock was back into the mid- $80s, with occasional jumps over $90.
Of course, this recovery cannot be totally attributed to search engine optimization and search engine marketing. Yet there’s every reason to believe the recovery would have been proportionately more tepid and uncertain absent the company’s canny, resolute digital programming.
Richard S. Levick, Esq., is president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and public affairs communications firm. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.