Yesterday, my friend Keith got a letter from his local Toyota dealership. He wasn’t surprised, given the fact that just before he opened it, he heard about yet another recall by the beleaguered automaker — the fourth in less than a month, involving more than 8.5 million cars worldwide.
I fully expected the letter to be either a) a notice that my 2009 Camry is part of the earlier recalls or b) an apology for recent quality problems and a promise to earn back my trust.
The letter was neither. . . . [T]he opening sentence summarizes the attitude and message of the whole thing: “In light of the exaggerated media attention focused on Toyota throughout the past several days, we felt compelled to touch base with all of our customers to set the record straight.” The letter goes on to say that “numerous media reports” include “many case of misinformation.”
In a stunning show of denial, the dealer even whipped out the V word: “It is unfortunate and unfair that Toyota has fallen victim to aggressive and questionable news coverage…”
Yep. Toyota is the victim, and they want me the customer to know it. I assume every person who received this letter owns a Toyota… a Toyota whose resale value is dropping like a rock. But my dealer thinks the sympathy should go to the corporate office. . . .
While this letter from my Toyota dealer initially angered me for blaming the media, the lasting resentment comes from the lack of character. They offered no apology to their customers. Worse, they tried to assume the mantle of victimhood.
Keith concludes his post by saying that he still loves his Toyota, and that, contrary to the dealer’s complaints, these media reports won’t sour his opinion. But, he says, the dealer’s letter just might.
Let’s hope that this is merely the overreaction of an isolated dealership, one that feels it is under siege and mistakenly tried to shift the blame in a fit of misplaced loyalty. If that’s the case, let’s hope that the dealership quickly apologizes before Toyota President Akiro Toyoda has to make a fourth public apology in less than two weeks.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Toyoda has said he will not testify before Congress and it appears that he is actively avoiding travel to the United States. So maybe this isn’t an isolated response — perhaps Toyota has decided to duck and cover in the hopes that it will all go away. If so, they have no idea just how bad things are going to get.
If the media has fallen down in any way here, it’s their failure to recognize the impact of Toyota’s missteps not merely on American consumers, but also onthe American economy. Many of the cars being recalled were built by American workers in American plants. Most of those plants are now dark, as Toyota tries to fix the problems and deal with a backlog of already-manufactured cars on their dealers’ lots.
All those workers are now temporarily (and perhaps permanently) unemployed. And let’s not forget all those folks working at Toyota’s dealers. The mechanics may have guaranteed jobs for a while, but what about everyone else? And remember, some of these folks are the same dealers who only a few months ago lost their GM, Ford, or Chrysler franchises. And then think about all the productivity lost as millions have to take time off from work to get their cars fixed.
Does anyone seriously believe that this won’t have a ripple effect? The first to be hurt will be companies (some American) who make the auto parts Toyota uses in their cars. Then other businesses, particularly in those communities where Toyota has its plants, will find that they have fewer customers buying their goods and services. Finally, local and state governments will see their tax base shrink even further.
This isn’t merely a public relations disaster — it’s another blow to the American economy. And the reaction of one beseiged dealership, no matter how well-intentioned, demonstrates that Toyota — and the economy — will not recover overnight.
Photo by showmeone via Flickr using a CC BY 2.0 license
Charles J. Brown is Senior Fellow and Washington Director of the Institute for International Law and Human Rights and the host of Undiplomatic, a blog on the intersection of foreign policy, politics, and pop culture. You also can follow him on Twitter.