The Takata airbag recall is one of the largest and most widespread manufacturers recalls to date. Almost 40 million cars were affected by faulty airbag inflators, with almost 50 million inflators having to be replaced. 21 major car companies were affected by this recall and had to issue massive recalls.
An inside perspective tells the story of a car company that was slow to react to a recall they were informed about well in advance of national and international news breaking. Some of the last people to know about this recall were the low -level employees, commonly the customer relations representatives that were in charge of fielding angry, fearful questions and concerns about the airbag and the safety of the vehicle.
Proactive communication with stakeholders is stressed as priority one, not only during a crisis but on a day-to-day, business as usual, basis. Be forthcoming and honest with external stakeholders but don’t forget some of the most important stakeholders, the ones under your nose, writing your press releases, and fielding questions from customers.
Internal stakeholders are some of the most important people your crisis response team has to work on your behalf. They hold stake in your company’s success and are, with your guidance and assistance, some of the most important and reliable voices to disseminate information. Studies show that employees who are actively communicated with, trusted with (sometimes) sensitive information and that feel empowered to interact with and trust higherups or executives, are happier at work.
The companies these employees work for have higher retention rates and have increased favorability with their internal stakeholders. Strong internal communications bode well for reputation management fronted by your most important stakeholder- employees. These companies also have better B2B, external, and investor relations communications.
The importance of internal communications can be stressed in employees’ inability to answer customer questions about a potentially deadly situation. The outside noise and rumors, without interference and thought leadership can jade and negatively affect your employees’ willingness and ability to effectively communicate vital information. Furthermore, if employees are generally discontent with the way they’re being treated and communicated with by the corporation, it’s okay to assume that your customers are also not being communicated within the most effective and efficient way possible.
Your employees’ frustration with their inability to factually answer the questions they’re being asked for 8 hours a day will, inevitably, exasperate your external stakeholders’ frustration, all while everyone’s trust in your credibility diminishes. Consider the type of inquiries these customers are coming to your employees to ask- is my car safe and can I transport my loved ones in it? Tensions are high- even if the car company had nothing to do with the recall, customers perceive this as negligence, considering that these customers probably bought your product with safety rating in mind.
Toyota/Lexus employees and the rest of the public were informed of the Takata airbag recall as a select few of early 2000’s models in high heat and humidity areas (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, etc.) were at risk for faulty inflators and these inflators would be replaced at no cost with new ones. These “new ones,” we would come to find out, were inflators made in the exact same place and would eventually, in high heat and humid areas, deteriorate and be at risk for exploding. Essentially renewing the entirety of this recall in just 10 year’s time.
About a month after the second official announcement, in the summer of 2016, announced that more cars were part of the nationwide recall. Some car companies, Honda/Acura, BMW, Volkswagen, and more were announcing sweeping recalls. Toyota/Lexus employees were then informed of the magnitude of the number of vehicles that were actually affected, and the number of affected vehicles would eventually match that of other car companies who had announced total recalls.
Noise and rumors from news and social media had created a sense of distrust among employees, which in turn, jaded employees’ responses to external stakeholders about the recall. Beyond internal stakeholders’ inability to efficiently and accurately respond to customers questions, noise and misinformation had ample time to influence customers trust of the company’s messaging.
Customers also began blaming car companies for the deaths and recall, rather than the manufacturer, Takata. The company’s slow response enabled anger to fester which employees then had to attempt to manage and rectify.
Had the Toyota/Lexus company had an effective and existing internal communications plans that focused on transparency and honesty, much of the reputation fall out and anger towards a previously well-trusted company could have been prevented.