How Toyota executes a well-driven strategy to recover from a crisis


An economic recession, a global recall of automobiles – two gargantuan back-to-back challenges that would keep any communicator awake at night. Toyota rose to the occasion and came up with inventive internal communications solutions while transforming its company culture in the process.

“During the recall, we wanted a way in which we could expedite information to help dealers and our associates answer customer questions and share those details in a public way,” recalls Ron Kirkpatrick, Toyota’s National Manager of Executive, Internal and Social Media Communications.

The content would have to be short, factual and to the point.

“It had to pass what I like to call ‘the backyard barbeque test’: if someone pokes their head over the fence and asks our associates a question about a news story, we want them to speak with authority about the subject. We wanted to arm them with accurate and timely information since they’re our greatest ambassadors,” Kirkpatrick explains.

The solution: Fast Facts – a one-page summary delivered via email. Introduced in early 2010, the channel consisted of two to three stories with snappy headlines and three to four essential points for dealers and associates to communicate to family, friends and Toyota customers about Toyota-related issues or controversies in the news.

With regard to the recall crisis, consumers’ safety was on the line so Kirkpatrick and his team knew communication had to be distributed quickly with a fast approval process.

“We created a very tight approval circle consisting of one writer, a proofreader/approver and one lawyer to review Fast Facts. And people got it. It enabled us to get out our side of the story to the public once, even twice, a day,” Kirkpatrick says.

Toyota is currently using Fast Facts to communicate information around this week’s worldwide recall of 2.77 million vehicles which includes the Prius hybrid and Corolla compact sedans.

“We sent out a Fast Facts last night around 9:30 pm to coinciding with the global announcement during the day in Japan. The idea is that associates would hopefully see the news from us first, before hearing it from a news outlet. We often stay up late or into the early morning to coordinate with Japan announcements. It’s not an exact science, but associates know we’re trying to keep them informed,” Kirkpatrick explains.

He continues, “In terms of recalls, we like to point out that cars are very complex and that recalls are a part of the automotive business. Toyota has taken a proactive approach to announce recalls as quickly as possible to help ensure the safety of our customers. Most consumers understand that things can go wrong with products, they want to be assured that you will be open about them and take full responsibility for fixing the issue. That’s what we are doing.”

An internal survey recently revealed that associates and dealers appreciate the Fast Facts tool, and in response to their feedback, Toyota only uses Fast Facts for important product announcements like the recalls, as well as significant industry news such as Consumer Reports’ reliability rankings. Kirkpatrick and his team always ensure that the proper links to media sources and official Toyota news releases are included in the Fast Facts sheet.

Repairing morale
Over the last year, the 30,000-plus U.S. associates at Toyota have worked together to rebuild shaky morale, foster camaraderie and do whatever necessary to ensure productivity.

“We said, ‘we will get through this, we all need to pitch in.’ That meant not spending money you didn’t need to spend and cutting down on travel. We also shifted people on a temporary basis to call centers and other critical areas to serve customers,” Kirkpatrick remembers.

With things drastically different than they were in the early 2000s when Toyota provided associates with fun events and other perks – thanks to strong financial growth – the time was now to repair morale. So Human Resources went to work.

In 2012, a new associate committee was formed to look into associate issues. The committee made a number of recommendations and received approval for a sizeable budget to create “Gestures of Appreciation” events for associates to enjoy and come together throughout the year. The launch of the program proved to be a fun event in itself complete with a large lunch and a DJ spinning music. Toyota leaders encouraged associates to stay and enjoy the day rather than rush back to their desks.

Another morale-building event occurred in September when the Space Shuttle Endeavour flew over Los Angeles near Toyota’s California headquarters.

“We donned our red Toyota shirts, drank some cold drinks on a hot day and really enjoyed the moment. Seeing the Endeavour go by was really incredible. Associates snapped pictures, many of which we published in our online newsletter,” Kirkpatrick recalls.

In addition to unifying employees, the company has also allowed greater flexibility when it comes to ways of working.

“Traditionally there was a belief at Toyota that if you’re not here, the work is not getting done. Now the company is allowing more telecommuting as well as relaxed dress codes. Plus decisions are now more manager-led. Things are a lot more liberal than when I started working here 15 years ago,” Kirkpatrick points out.

Keeping with the times

Also changing, Kirkpatrick says, is the way executives communicate: a true shift in culture during a time that’s seeing more Gen X/Y employees in the workforce; many of whom are caught up in the fast messaging world of Facebook and Twitter.

“People’s attention spans have gone down in the last 15 years. When I write speeches for Toyota executives, I make sure they don’t go over 20 minutes. Otherwise, the audience will tune out and gaze at their smartphones,” Kirkpatrick says.

As a rule, he relies less on scripts and more on a bulleted style to cater to short attention spans and people pressed for time.

Still, use of PowerPoint is unavoidable at a big company like Toyota (“It’s a necessary evil,” Kirkpatrick says) so he and his team do their best to make sure content is as engaging as possible. This means a ‘less is more’ mentality with fewer slides and concise text to get the messaging across. Executives are also encouraged to use large, simple imagery “that fits the message,” Kirkpatrick points out. That way, associates will have more opportunities to focus on leaders themselves – whites of their eyes and all. Increased human connection allows for better morale and greater trust in leadership.

Other internal communication channels

As with Fast Facts, Kirkpatrick and his team rely on other new channels to ensure associates receive timely information they need to do their jobs. Most notable: Salesforce’s Chatter.

When Toyota’s President Akio Toyoda was appointed three years ago, he brought a fresher perspective to global internal communications. He’s breathed new life into a conservative old-school culture known for one-way communication and slow decision-making processes.

Use of Chatter has helped fuel the shift.

“Chatter has also loosened up our lawyers a bit; it’s proved that the world won’t cave in if associates express themselves,” Kirkpatrick quips.

The enterprise social networking tool is still in the early stages with only a third of Toyota associates using it globally. Kirkpatrick, a baby boomer, admits that Chatter can be challenging to manage when working on multiple projects.

“I get invited to join so many different groups that communicating on Chatter can almost become a full-time job.”

Kirkpatrick is currently a member of eight Chatter groups; some of which are private while others are open. He tends to only review updates once a week as compared to “hour by hour” updates by Gen Y staff.

Social on the outside

Externally, Toyota is bulking up its Social Media team and taking lessons from Dell’s and Gatorade’s social media command centers.

“We’re planning to build our own command center to listen to external conversations. Our goal is to quickly deal with issues and take part as naturally as possible in current conversations,” Kirkpatrick says.

There is still a lot of debate about changing Toyota’s present social media guidelines for associates. “The policy now says that if you’re going to talk online, you must identify yourself as a Toyota employee and state that the opinions expressed are your own and don’t represent company views,” Kirkpatrick says.

As a result of the “cumbersome” guidelines, many Toyota associates have been wary of participating in social media, but Kirkpatrick is hoping a new policy will relax things.

Long live print

In spite of new dabbling in social media and a successful online newsletter, Driver Seat (published at least once a week), print communication remains an essential part of employee communications, even if it’s not the most environmentally friendly IC channel.

“Print is still used at Toyota for dealer communications. We didn’t want to change that because associates that work at our dealerships like having articles to point to with customers,” Kirkpatrick explains.

76 percent of Toyota Today readers are dealer sales associates. The magazine provides tips on selling while helping to keep readers abreast of the latest product information. The publication is distributed every two months and usually contains 16 pages of relevant news and information. 88% of dealers and sales associates say that the magazine helps them sell cars and do their jobs better.

Moving forward

In 2013, Toyota has a plan to rebuild its intranet to unite associates companywide, including those working in the Kentucky manufacturing plant, West Coast sales/marketing divisions and East Coast investor companies.

“We’re doing a soft launch in January where every associate will have the same home page linking to content specific to their region,” Kirkpatrick says. The big launch is scheduled take place during February in conjunction with the Daytona 500.

There are also plans to integrate comment functions on news articles and to greatly improve the search function. Kirkpatrick hopes to feature videos more prominently, which will be a far cry from current capabilities on the 10-year-old intranet.

“Right now, we can only run videos that are about 3-4 minutes long and the player is located on the lower part of the screen where fewer people visit daily. Once our system changes in January, video will become huge,” he predicts.

Meanwhile, judging by survey results (gathered every 2 years), Toyota associates are feeling good again. A recent survey showed 90% satisfaction rates regarding a recent town hall meeting, meaning associates feel the sessions successfully keep people informed about goings-on in the company and provides time well spent.

“We’re starting to feel like the Toyota I experienced when I joined the company 15 years ago. We’re feeling proud again. While there’s still work to be done, we will get there,” Kirkpatrick says.