Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fighting bad news: Toyota v Vodafone

It's been a nightmare lately for the builder of the best built cars in the world. It started with a US recall of 5.3 million Toyotas for repair to accelerator pedals that might, when worn, have stuck. The consequences for some were fatal. Toyota has had to face into the single biggest damage limitation action of its life.

The recall rollout affects 350,000 cars in the UK and 18,000 in Ireland. They've been using traditional PR to get news stories out in the press and they also have used their local online presence to alert the public.

But there's never a shit situation that can't be enworsened by a smartarse hacker. Indeed hacker is probably too lofty a term for what was needed to bypass Toyota's failsafe security. Here's what happened on Toyota Ireland's site early this weekend.

We can confirm that your Toyota is absolutely fucked and is probably exploding in your face right now.
Ouch. It stayed like that for two whole days, complete with a working link to major competitor Renault, before finally someone got it fixed. Now it's back to the boring old business of trying to minimise the damage that has already wiped $20 billion off Toyota's worldwide share value. But the recalled, repaired site makes no reference to the messing that went on.

It even has last Friday's date on it. The Twitter account, updated today, Sunday, at around 3 in the afternoon, alludes to it once only and also seems to think that the hack had just happened minutes ago. It leaves us with a lukewarm Thanks for listening message.


Just like in real life, jokers will mess with your shit on the web. In fact it's pretty much guaranteed, especially if you're in any kind of media spotlight. Ask Cheryl Cole. But there is a more serious point for all Irish advertisers to take on board. The web is a living place where your brand can grow or get bullied, or both. If you aren't on top of it, with online PR, advertising and active social engagement, you will suffer. This isn't an academic notion. It's a fact.

More learned people than I can tell you the dos and dont's of building your site in order to avoid this kind of jackanapery, but you shouldn't need anyone to tell you that the web is open for business all the time. There is no weekend off, not for your PR company and not for you. Two crucial days were lost online for Toyota, and the level of engagement in the arena where they were lost has been absolutely minimal. Nothing on the site, and one lousy tweet that relayed no information.

Compare this with a slightly smaller embarrassment that Vodafone UK suffered at pretty much the same time, Friday afternoon on Feb 5th. An offensive tweet on their account read

"Vodafone UK is fed up of dirty homo's and is going after beaver." 

It was taken down sharpish, and Vodafone's reaction demonstrates the difference between a client who understands how they have to behave online and one who clearly isn't there yet.

Anyone who complained was responded to, and a complete disclosure (within reasonable limits) was made. Responsibility was assumed, quickly, and a full apology was made. No doubt some dick will rightly have every Monday off from now on, and it must have stung Vodafone like hell, but how often do you hear a big brand saying We're really sorry?

And will Toyota Ireland (who have proven themselves quite clever online in some respects, particularly marketing) learn from this, I wonder? I hope so.

For the record, every car I've ever owned has been a Toyota. I'm on No. 4. And if I'm ever lucky enough to change again, it'll most likely be to No. 5. I'm nowhere near as convinced that management has mastered CRM in the 21st century as well as it has production.


  1. Great insights and evaluation as usual Nick - a brilliant piece that 95% of businesses need to read (the other 5% I don't like and don't think they deserve your advice!)

  2. Very interesting post, and analysis into the the two companies - I saw the Vodafone story break on Friday, and I was impressed with their repsonse time too. It will be interesting to see how Toyota's social media policy changes in light of the recent stories.

  3. I was in a place today that seriously needed to start putting the message out on Sundays - if the number of red t-shirted staff on double time twiddling their groovy thumbs was any indication.

    As for Toyota If I could afford one I would drive one. But Nissan is my limit.
    Sad thing is I can see the management going beyond an apology and doing the japanese thing. Which is a whole lot more than any of our banking or Financial Regulator feckers will do. -and by that I mean an apology will suffice!!

    Loving the Voda response. Hate it when a company tries to pretend that the elephant in the room did not just shit on your shoes.

    When I was a rep' I found the best way to win a customer back was to say "I fucked up, sorry"
    worked everytime I tell ye! xx

  4. Gotta admit though, as horrible as it is for any brand to be the victim of something like that, that Toyota take-over's pretty funny...

  5. Good post, although to some extent you're comparing apples to oranges here - the severity of the size of the recalls and the danger to Toyota customers (and those who encounter them on the roads!) doesn't quite equate to will you use a cell phone provider who may employ homophobes.

    What I find particularly amusing about the whole Toyota situation is all the car manufacturers who have targeted Toyota and Honda's fuel efficiency in their ads - which continue to air here in North America ('better than a Toyota' they keep claiming). The ripples of this recall are going to be felt very very widely in a whole host of ways. It's hard not to conclude American car manufacturers will do their utmost to make hay while the sun shines after their bailout.

  6. Ronan here from Toyota. I would like to take opportunity to respond to comments made above.

    The above text you highlight on screengrab was not in fact visible on the website. i.e. customers searching on never actually saw this message. The message was instead on a cached page that people only arrived at when following a specific link from blogs and tweets. We can confirm that 530 people clicked on this link, mostly on Sunday.

    We now know that this happened late on Friday evening but as it was a cached link only, it went unnoticed until early Sunday morning. Only a handful of people had clicked on the link on Friday evening and Saturday. However it wasn't being mentioned in conversations online, hence it going unnoticed. At about 11am on Sunday our Google Alerts picked up a tweet from Damien Mulley mentioning the word "Toyota" in Ireland and a link to this page. We immediately set about trying to remove this link, but like alot of companies we use a 3rd party web company to manage and maintain our website. It unfortunately took us 3 hours from noticing the issue to having the necessary person's responsible remove the cached link. We were not happy with this response time.

    Naturally we were very annoyed that this happened in the first place and have taken necessary steps with our development company to ensure it does not happen again!

    Our comparison to Vodafone and their situation on friday afternoon is very different in many ways, many of which are evident from the explanation above. No one complained directly @toyotaireland during this time, unlike at Vodafone. However your reference suggests that we should have been more direct, but to who? Everyone who RT'd the link in the first place?

    We are learning everyday in relation to social media, last weekend being an expensive lesson. We are only glad we had the neccessary alerts set up to identify the invasion early on Sunday as over a 1000 clicks were recorded on the 404 error link that replaced the cached link.

  7. Thanks for the clarification and insight, Ronan. Comparisons to Vodafone are of course never going to be exactly on a par, but the coincidence of timing makes it pertinent. What matters (aside from web security, natch) is that the issues get addressed transparently. The web enables good and bad communications for brands both by themselves and consumers, but I'd certainly consider this conversation to be a good one in the new open university we're all in.

  8. Web security becoming more & more complex than before, now every small to big brands need to take necessary steps to ensure they can respond as early as possible for this type of security breach.

  9. Web security & Response of any security breach of a brand is more related with their PR, In this internet age every little information can reach billions of people with in seconds of time. so let's take your Web security seriously.