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Toyota unleashes PR blitz to salvage its reputation

WASHINGTON

In public, Toyota is running apologetic TV ads and vowing to win back customers' trust. Behind the scenes, the besieged carmaker is trying to learn all it can about congressional investigations, and maybe even steer them if it can.

It's part of an all-out drive by the world's biggest automaker to redeem its once unassailable brand — hit anew on Tuesday as Toyota's global recall ballooned to 8.5 million cars and trucks. The day's safety recall of 440,000 of its flagship Prius and other hybrids, plus a Tokyo news conference where the company's president read a statement in English pledging to "regain the confidence of our customers," underscored a determination to keep buyers' faith from sinking to unrecoverable depths.

In Washington, Toyota is working through its lawyers and lobbyists to salvage its reputation. The strategy includes efforts to sway upcoming hearings on Capitol Hill and is based on experiences by companies that have survived similar consumer and political crises — and those that haven't.

Toyota, which reported spending more than $4 million on lobbying last year, declined to discuss details of its plans. The company has "beefed up our team" by hiring additional lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts to "work with regulators and lawmakers collaboratively towards a successful recall effort, ensuring proper, diligent compliance," spokeswoman Cindy Knight said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Toyota also faces congressional hearings about floor mats that get caught under accelerators, sticky gas pedals and brake problems, and what the company and federal regulators knew about them.

Professionals who have waged major damage-control struggles say the best strategy mixes apology, openness and details about a specific fix — plus a little help from friends on Capitol Hill.

In recent days, American TV viewers have seen ads in which a soft-spoken announcer talks about Toyota's dedication to safety and its customers.

Toyota is expected to turn to its natural allies — lawmakers from states with Toyota plants or offices, which include Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Toyota has been encouraging dealers to contact local members of Congress, said Bailey Wood of the National Automobile Dealers Association. About 60 of the 1,200 U.S. Toyota dealers intend to visit Washington this week, weather permitting, said Cody Lusk, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association. Their message: Toyota employs 34,000 people in the United States and accounts for 164,000 other jobs.

Toyota flew 23 workers from plants around the country to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers' staffs, emphasizing that the people who make the parts and build the vehicles care about quality.

One worker who tests cars and trucks said he takes it personally that he never found the gas pedal problem.

"I feel that I failed customers by not finding this issue," said Jim Shuker, who works at Toyota's Arizona Proving Grounds in Wittmann, Ariz. "We were not able to duplicate it."

In the meantime, Toyota president Akio Toyoda wrote an opinion column in Tuesday's Washington Post in which he promised an outside review of company operations, better responses to complaints and improved communication with federal officials.

Toyota problems have sparked the highest-profile congressional investigation of the auto industry since a slew of deadly accidents prompted the Firestone tire recall in 2000. Most of the tires were on Ford Explorers.

Both companies suffered damage to their reputations, but both bounced back. Ford was proactive, briefing officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Congress and stressing that the safety of its customers was paramount. Firestone offered to replace its tires for free.

Also Tuesday

Rough headlines for Toyota continued Tuesday:

. State Farm, the largest U.S. auto insurer, said it had informed federal regulators late in 2007 about growing reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyotas. That disclosure raised new questions about whether the government missed clues about problems.

. Congressional investigators cited growing evidence that not all the causes of Toyota's acceleration problems have been identified. A staff memo from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which had planned an oversight hearing for today — it was rescheduled for Feb. 24 due to snow in Washington — said there was substantial evidence that remedies such as redesigned floor mats have failed to solve problems.

. Federal safety officials said they were examining complaints from Toyota Corolla owners about steering problems.

Toyota unleashes PR blitz to salvage its reputation 02/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 11:05pm]
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