PR Disaster of the Year: The website that derailed a popular President

As the year winds down, we turn to things that really matter. I’m talking, of course, about the 2013 Force for Good PR Disaster of the Year.

Once again, we have an abundance of worthy candidates, including:

  • Carnival Cruise‘s stunning string of misadventures on the high seas disastrously amplified by PR pratfalls–e.g., Carnival’s CEO sighted at a Miami Heat basketball game while being unavailable for comment about the overflowing toilets 4,000 of his customers were enduring aboard a crippled cruise ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Paula Deen — for her clumsy video apologies, Today Show no-show, and overall lack of self-awareness in the wake of criticism about her racist comments from years ago. I mean, even if you have fantasized about having black servers at a wedding to give it that classic Southern ambiance, don’t answer “Yes, of course” in a deposition when asked if you have ever used the N-word. 
  • The return of Pink Slime, last year’s “winner.” 
  • The whole Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, especially the way it “ended”–the team rallying behind thuggish anti-hero Richie Incognito and disparaging his victim for “quitting on the team.” We haven’t heard the last of this…

Obamacarewebsite downBut standing out in terms of staying power and sheer volume of coverage was the launch of  Healthcare.gov (aka, the Obamacare website). This one had everything:

  • The website itself clearly was not ready for prime time when it was launched. Warnings from developers were not heeded. A delay would have been embarrassing, but not as damaging as what actually happened…
  • The website crashed right at the onset, prompting the White House to try to make lemonade from the lemons by insisting that this just proved how popular Obamacare was proving to be.
  • Lots of finger-pointing.
  • The spectacle of the President losing his mojo. A press corps that had been supportive (substitute  ”fawning” here if you like) turned on him… His approval numbers tanked…Even Democrats in Congress disavowed their allegiance to the President’s signature achievement.
  • It took way too long to get the website up and running (aptly called a “slow-motion train wreck” here).
  • It provided endless fodder for the late-night comics. When Jon Stewart starts ridiculing a Democratic president, you know things are going badly.
  • Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius broke a cardinal rule from media training by repeating a damning word in a question posed to her during a Congressional grilling. Said she: “Hold me accountable for this debacle.” (But things were so bad at this point, her quote hardly raised an eyebrow.)
  • The President’s “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” promise turns out to be false for millions of Americans, prompting a series of clumsy explanations and one half-hearted apology. While technically not part of the website debacle, the President’s untruth became a firestorm of its own largely because the press corps pounced on it–the promise originated at a time when the White House counted on the media to give the President the benefit of every doubt. That’s a dangerous assumption, as any media trainer can tell you.

Here’s to the new year and whatever it will bring. One thing’s for sure:  even some who should know better will stumble at just the wrong time, turning an embarrassing moment into a full-blown disaster.

Crisis watch: What American Airlines can learn from the NFL after the ‘worst call ever’


It keeps getting worse for American Airlines.

Already operating in bankruptcy, embroiled in a rancorous strike with its pilots, and fighting to stave off a take-over bid by US Air, American Airlines has had a week from hell.

First was a scathingly hilarious op-ed in the New York Times, A Trans-Atlantic Trip Turns Kafkaesque, which began:

You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment. And your employees have clearly lost interest in the endeavor.… You need to stop. 

Then today the airline admitted that a row of seats had become unbolted from the floor and tipped over in mid-flight – on three different planes in the past week (!).

According to the Associated Press, an American spokesperson…

said an initial review indicated that there could be a problem with the way the seats fit into tracks on the floor of the Boeing 757, but technical teams from the airline “are looking at everything.” Asked if seats had ever come loose on an American flight before last week, (she) replied, “Not that I’m aware of.”

“American Airlines’ reputation is in free fall,” writes Daniel Gross in Newsweek today.

Ok, it’s easy to pile on (and we certainly will hear more on this seat business from the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman, prolonging AA’s agony). But let’s focus on what the company should do.

  • http://www.gitelesprunelles.be/best-vines-do-your-homework/ Ground any suspect planes immediately. American Airlines has now taken this obvious first step, grounding eight Boeing 757s. But they need to make sure no other planes in their fleet fall victim to this strange malady—every seat row in every plane should get an immediate inspection. Thoroughness is essential to begin winning back the trust of the public after such an embarrassing series of events.
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  • click Get the facts straight, then correct erroneous reporting. Spokespeople need to thoroughly understand American Airline’s safety record. “Not that I’m aware of” is not a good answer to a question that was sure to be asked. Remember that in the absence of solid information, others will feel free to speculate, and discrepancies over even the most basic information will appear all over the media. For example, some media outlets (including CNN) continue to report that there have been two AA planes with unfastened seats; other outlets insist that there have been three. Which is it? Why isn’t American Airlines clearing up the confusion? It just contributes to the whole Keystone Cops aura that the airline is exuding these days.
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  • Don’t blame your employees, but don’t be too quick to rule out potential causes. The AP story states:(The AA spokesperson) was adamant, however, in saying that the incidents were not the result of sabotage by workers. American’s union employees are unhappy about pending layoffs and cuts in pay and benefits that American has imposed since filing for bankruptcy protection in November.  Her instincts are right in not putting the blame on employees, but how can the airline so definitively rule out any potential causes until they understand what isto blame? A better answer might have been: “We have no reason to think any incidents were intentional. We will continue to investigate this matter until we understand what caused them. The safety of our passengers is our highest priority.”UPDATE: American Airlines is now saying it has determined the cause of the problem, improperly installed clamps.
  • http://bluntmax.com/example-of-abstract-research-paper/ Understand that your reputation go site has been seriously harmed with far-reaching consequences. American Airlines’ position in each of its negotiations (with the pilots, with US Air, with the flying public) has been weakened. Public confidence has been eroded. To pretend otherwise will only prolong and deepen the airline’s crisis.

American Airlines should take a lesson from Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League. Embroiled in a lengthy dispute with its referees, the NFL brought in less-qualified replacement refs which naturally led to suspect officiating and ultimately a devalued product to the fans. Still, Goodell and the league’s owners would not accede to the ref’s demands, though miniscule against the scale of the multi-billion-dollar NFL.

But all that changed last Monday night, when replacement refs blew a crucial call on the last play of a nationally televised game. What became widely known as the “worst call ever” tipped the balance of the referee dispute. The NFL clearly had no remaining fan support for continuing the lockout and the the very credibility of the league was being questioned. The owners wisely folded their hand two days later. On Friday, Goodell issued an apology of sorts to NFL fans, though he avoided using the words “apologize” or “sorry,” and it smacked a bit of arrogance.

So AA, here’s a plan to win back trust in your airline:

  1. creative writing essay topics for high school students Put the seat debacle behind you by inspecting and fixing every plane that could possibly be affected.
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  2. see url Commit to clear and informed statements from your spokespeople, and quick action to correct misinformation.
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  3. essay writers that write movie reviews for sociological issues Settle your dispute with your most valuable employees. Do you really expect people to fly on your airline when your pilots are on strike?
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  4. Make a real, sincere effort to satisfy your customers with a safe, reliable and yes, enjoyable experience. It could begin with the CEO sending an electronic copy of that nasty NYT op-ed to every employee in the airline with a note saying he’s embarrassed by the way American Airlines has at times recently lost its way, and asking everyone in the company to commit to doing better. Think of that op-ed as the moral equivalent of a “before” picture someone dedicated to losing weight hangs up on the refrigerator for motivation.

Do those four things and number 5 will be imminently achievable:

Get your fiscal house in order to deliver consistent, sustainable profits.

- Jon Harmon

 

GM learns from Toyota’s mistakes with sure-footed crisis response to Volt fires

GM moved quickly to diffuse a potentially devastating crisis by continuing to learn from Toyota–in this case, avoiding Toyota’s mistakes at the beginning of its own product crisis last year.

Media pounced (as they inevitably do) on GM soon after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation into the Chevy Volt, an advanced plug-in hybrid electric car. A Volt had caught fire three weeks after it had been crash tested, touching off a crisis with far-ranging consequences: to GM (while not expected to make a positive contribution to GM earnings for many years, the Volt is the most visible symbol of the potential of the new GM, reborn after the bankruptcy of the old one), for the Obama Administration (which rightly has taken credit for saving thousands of American jobs with its rescue of GM), and for the nascent electric car industry (which are almost universally powered by lithium ion batteries similar to the ones used in the volt).

 

Remember that reports of flaming laptop computers originating from over-heating lithium ion batteries forced Dell in 2006 to initiate the largest recall in the history of personal computers.

The most important action for GM was to commit to do the right thing, not just set out to prove that the Volt was a safe vehicle, I told Keith Naughton of Bloomberg news as the crisis unfolded:

“They’ve got to demonstrate that they’re putting their customers’ safety first,” said Jon Harmon, a former spokesman for Ford Motor Co. and author of “Feeding Frenzy,” a book about the Ford-Firestone crisis of the early 2000s. “The focus needs to be on getting to the bottom of this, not trying to prove that they’re right.”

To GM’s credit, the company reacted in mostly the right ways–cooperating immediately with NHTSA investigators to understand the cause of the fires while working to reassure the public. The fires had occurred after the crash-tested Volts had been parked without fully discharging the batteries, GM said–and the company would not only get the word out to its dealers and other auto service centers on the necessity of discharging the batteries after a collision, but they would develop an onboard system to slowly and safely discharge the batteries after a crash. And they offered loaners of good-old fashioned petrol-burning GM cars to Volt owners who didn’t want to keep their cars while the company was sorting out the problem and the fix.

GM’s only misstep was when GM CEO Dan Akerson said the company would buy back Volts from concerned customers, comments the company’s PR people quickly clarified (the loaner program had been launched to quell customer concerns and the company has every intent to quickly understand and remedy the problem which would take away the need for any buy-back program).

Toyota in contrast had stone-walled investigators and the media when reports began to surface of complaints of unintended acceleration in a number of Toyota and Lexus models. After much criticism put a significant dent in its sterling reputation for quality and customer satisfaction, Toyota reversed course and began handling the crisis with laudable care and attention. Ultimately, the company was vindicated in its insistence that no computer or electronic malfunction was occurring. But that did not excuse its initial behavior in brushing off reports of its cars speeding up on their own, and undoubtedly that first impression left lasting scars on Toyota’s reputation.

GM’s adroit handling of the Volt crisis has rightly earned high marks and the contrast with Toyota’s bumbling crisis response duly noted (for example, in the Los Angles Times).

- Jon Harmon

Crisis media relations made easy: Keeping COOL on the HOT Seat

“Keep your head when others around you are losing theirs.” It’s sound advice for the crisis communicator, but easier said than done.

The secret is preparation. Start with a thorough crisis vulnerability audit covering your company’s operations, products and people. Then develop a detailed crisis communications plan with variations included for each significantly different type of crisis envisioned by the audit.

Then remember that the actual crisis that strikes won’t be at all like any of the scenarios you envisioned. A crisis creates a whole string of moments requiring on-the-spot good judgment from the person leading crisis communications. But you’ll be much more ready to exercise good judgment and a steady hand if you have previously taken the time to develop your crisis plan.

If you have little media-relations experience handling combustible issues and preparing for an all-out corporate crisis seems over-whelming, you’ll do well to read Judith Hoffman’s concise and well-reasonedKeeping COOL on the HOT Seat: Dealing Effectively with the Media in Times of Crisis. Just released as a revised fifth edition, this handy paperback provides wise counsel to the communicator that is both up-to-date and timeless.

The beauty of this book is its simplicity. Hoffman breaks down the daunting specter of a crisis–and the role of a crisis communicator in confronting it–into a series of short, easy-to-understand mini-chapters that collectively can help a novice make sense of it all. Yet a more seasoned public relations pro will also find it to be valuable because it’s all so spot-on.

Keeping Cool walks the reader through the basic elements of crisis planning, along with the basics of crisis media relations. It is full of practical advice, including these 10 C’s of Good Crisis Communications:

  • Be cooperative.
  • Provide control.
  • Demonstrate caring and concern.
  • Demonstrate competence.
  • Be credible.
  • Be consistent.
  • Be clear.
  • Be concise.
  • Remain current.
  • Act calm (keep your cool).

She advises against trying to be “cute or clever” and to avoid the always deadly “No comment.”

This is all great advice and it’s a solid reminder of the basics of crisis communications. Those who read and abide by the principles in this book will better serve their organization in the sudden event of a crisis.

What’s missing is exactly where I began this post–the crisis audit. Hoffman skips over the need to dissect the organization for vulnerability on various fronts. Often, the crisis audit will detect deficiencies that, once addressed, may help an organization avoid a crisis in the first place. And different types of vulnerabilities may require somewhat different crisis plans (for example, an explosion in a plant will require a different response plan than would a string of complaints of sexual harassment).

Hoffman’s book alone won’t prepare a novice communicator for any emergency, but Keeping Cool readers will be far better off in an emergency for having read her book.

- Jon Harmon

Disclosure: Judy Hoffman includes a nice reference to my book, Feeding Frenzy, in her book which I’m happy to quote here:

“To get a true sense of what it is like to be on the “hot seat” in the midst of a raging crisis with national and international attention, read this book. Mr. Harmon was the head of Pubic Relations for Ford Truck in 1999 when this high-profile case broke. If there is even a possibility that your organization could be in such a high visibility position with your products deemed a safety threat to a large population, you owe it your self to know how these things work.”

Real lessons in crisis management: Olive Garden recovers nicely from anti-flag flap

After an initial misstep, Olive Garden corporate has recovered well and looks to be putting an unwelcome controversy behind it.

Yesterday, news broke that an Olive Garden restaurant in Oxford, Alabama, had refused to allow a Kiwanis Club to include their American flag at a banquet there. Eighty-year-old Kiwanis Club member Marti Warren was outraged, “This is not my country. This is not my country I grew up with,” she said. “I was so angry. I felt like I had been slapped in the face.”

Unfortunately, Olive Garden’s first response to the flag flap was weak and only made matters worse. The restaurant chain released a statement aiming to explain away the controversy. After noting that “like all Americans we have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the American flag and everything it symbolizes,” the company then offered this ham-handed explanation that, predictably enough, only fanned the flames: “To be fair to everyone and avoid disrupting the dining experience for all other guests, [the Oxford restaurant is] unable to accommodate flags or banners of any type in the dining room.”

Remember that crisis management is not about winning an argument debate-style. It’s about winning over hearts and minds. Cold, hard facts often don’t effectively counter emotional complaints. And how is this for emotional imagery on the side of the aggrieved Kiwanis: Without a flag at the Kiwanis banquet, Warren said she asked club members to close their eyes and picture the flag waving in the wind as they said the pledge of allegiance.

Soon the internet was abuzz with boycott threats. Conservative-leaning bloggers were quick to impugn the restaurant’s motives in excluding the Star and Stripes. “Far-left Olive Garden,” began one report.

But today is a new day and more seasoned PR pros evidently won out at Olive Garden corporate.

Olive Garden SVP Bill Holmes called Warren yesterday to personally apologize and promised to fly down to Alabama first thing Monday to personally apologize to the Kiwanis Club. Olive garden also revised its statement, with an apology (and not just the “we’re sorry if anyone was offended by our innocent action…” apology all too common these days; see my earlier posts here and here. And he agreed to return to Oxford Nov. 4 to speak at the next Kiwanis Club meeting.

Much better, Olive Garden. Marti Warren, for one, is satisfied. “I feel grateful of all the people who stood with me and that changes were made,” she said.

- Jon Harmon

Oil spill provides welcome cover – but Toyota, J&J and McDonald’s must clean up their own messes

The ugly saga of BP’s Gulf oil spill (which President Obama is comparing to the 9-11 terrorist attacks) has provided considerable cover for just about every other corporate crisis. Perhaps the most grateful people have to be fromToyota as they have happily moved from day-to-day crisis management to full-on brand-rebuilding.

But the crisis managers at Johnson & Johnson and McDonald’s should be thanking BP daily. In case you missed it, here is a quick look at two crisis events that each have plenty of potential for major negative consequences:

 

  • Johnson & Johnson has for decades been held up as the paragon for virtuous crisis management for its Tylenol recall in 1982. But the company has stumbled in how it has handled itsmost recent Tylenol troubles. J&J has taken a less than “the-buck-stops-here” stance, blaming its suppliers of pallets for the mysterious odors in the Tylenol packaging and capsules (okay, but from their customers’ viewpoint, if Tylenol capsules smell bad, isn’t that J&J’s problem?). J&J also has been accused of being uncooperative with Congressional investigators and the FDA. The company has been happy to ride its laurels for nearly 40 years, but it has to show it can still “walk the talk” today.
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  • McDonald’s acted quickly in recalling Shrek glass tainted with toxic chemicals –but has not been forthcoming in disclosing how the carcinogenic metal found its way into the coating of the glasses. Nothing shatters customer trust like the thought of cancerous toxins around food or drinking glasses. McDonald’s needs to fully understand what happens and be able to explain how it won’t let it happen again.

The oil spill seems to be a never-ending disaster completely consuming news media attention, but Toyota, J&J and McDonald’s cannot let up in relentlessly doing the right things to fix broken processes, communicate with transparency and make things right with their customers.

- Jon Harmon

Long-term impact of BP’s ugly spill: less off-shore drilling, more renewable energy development?

The massive, still-ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is certain to cost BP dearly–billions of clean up costs and an even larger hit on the reputation of a company that prided itself on a progressive environmental vision. BP may have wanted to stand for “Beyond Petroleum” but now it stands for “Big Problem.” Or perhaps as Robert Reich suggests: “Bad Petroleum.”

But the bigger issue is the long-term effect on energy policy, and off-shore drilling in particular, that may result from this environmental disaster. Will the BP Gulf spill do to off-shore drilling what Three Mile Island did to nuclear power in the U.S.? Those who had hoped for expansions in off-shore drilling as part of an effort to curb U.S. dependence on foreign oil are for the moment muting their chant of “Drill, baby drill.”

And will the spill give renewed impetus to a whole range of renewable energy sources–wind, solar, geo-thermal, run-of-river hydro power, etc.?

- Jon Harmon

Toyota at the crossroads: Digging out or digging a deeper hole?

Toyota just can’t catch a break these days, further indication that the end of its crisis is still far off.

On a day when Toyota struck back hard (shades of Harry Pearce) at what it sees as a bogus demonstration of its vehicles’ alleged electronic throttle control defect, California Highway Patrolmen had to perform a high-speed rescue of a run-away Prius. News reports did not miss the irony.

The Toyota logo (faceless man in a sombrero?) has seen better days.

Toyota had seemed to score points with a satellite-uplinked news conference expose that succeeded in creating doubts about the legitimacy of Southern Illinois University professor Gilbert’s demonstration, performed for the benefit of an investigating Congressional committee and broadcast by ABC News. Some media compared Toyota’s offensive to former GM vice chairman Pearce’s 1993 courtroom style demolition of an NBC Dateline report “demonstrating” the supposed tendency of GM pickups to burst into flames when involved in an otherwise non-lethal collision (but, as Pearce made clear to a roomful of journalists, Dateline had ensured a fiery result with remotely ignited model rocket engines hidden under the truck). Pearce’s news conference was first-rate high-drama–in fact, I use it as the opening scene in my book Feeding Frenzy on the Ford-Firestone tire crisis. But it is a hard act to emulate, and Toyota’s media offensive today didn’t quite measure up. Toyota did score some points by showing that the professor’s science project would also cause competitive cars to speed up wildly, and most seemed to buy Toyota’s conclusion that the unwelcome result of this contrived interference would be highly unlikely to ever happen in the real world. But, really, Toyota could only cast doubt on the validity of Gilbert’s demonstration; they did not debunk it.

And then there was that runaway Prius, a most unwelcome intrusion into the news cycle Toyota hoped to own. Prius is not subject to the ”sticky  gas pedal” recall. So unless today’s near-accident was caused by a loose floormat, Toyota will have a hard time explaining what did cause it. No less an electronics expert than Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak believes his Prius’ fits of unexpected acceleration has been caused by an electronic glitch.

Toyota continues to insist there is no credible evidence of electronic malfunction in its cars. Yet, to its credit, Toyota says it continues to conduct its root cause investigations without limitations. It must resist the natural temptation to prove what it so wants to be true, that there is no electronic problem, and conduct a thorough investigation without prejudice or preconceptions. The lives and well-being of its millions of customers are at stake, and every other consideration pales in importance.

Not looking hard enough for the true root cause would be almost as bad as hiding a problem it knows to exist. Then no crisis communications master-stroke, even one trumping anything ever accomplished by Harry Pearce, will be able to win back public trust in Toyota.

- Jon Harmon

Avoid the crisis: Ensure employees are treated fairly

The best form of crisis management, of course, is crisis prevention. Take steps now to avoid problems that can become a crisis if poorly handled.

A crisis audit should include careful inspection of places and processes that could be subject to tragic failure (A facility fire … a faulty manufacturing process leading to an unsafe product, etc.), but don't overlook people. The standards a company sets for fair treatment for all employees, and the way it ensures these standards are upheld, are crucial for avoiding a crisis from within.

Prime example: With thousands of veterans returning to civilian life from active combat duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, companies need to ensure steps are consistently taken to onboard veterans as employees in caring and sensitive ways. Companies hiring (or welcoming back) veterans rightly enhance their status as responsible employers, and, for their part, military vets often make exemplary employees. But supervisors should be trained to be sensitive to the often hidden specter of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Surely no supervisor at your company could be so insensitive as to deny a leave of absence to an employee suffering from PTSD–and instead give her a more stressful assignment and eventually have her incarcerated by a police psych unit, right? That's exactly what happened to Kay Morris-Robertson, an executive employed by Westfield Holdings, a multi-billion-dollar company operating shopping malls on three continents.

Jonathan Bernstein recounts Morris-Robertson's harrowing story in an article in Crisis Manager titled "Employer Mishandling of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — A Preventable Crisis:"   

The police arrived and Morris-Robertson was taken off and detained in the Los Angeles psych unit.  There she encountered various individuals suffering from mental illness, drug withdrawal, and any number of other stressful situations – the last thing to which someone with PTSD should be subjected.

Morris-Robertson's PTSD did not stem from military conflict but from the emotionally wrenching experience of having her husband die in her arms after he suffered a heart attack while the two were out in a sailboat together. She tried to get away from the pain by throwing herself into her work, but the heartache festered inside her until she became distraught. The callous way she was then treated by her employer caused further harm.

And now the company must deal with her lawsuit along with the unwelcome media attention it is generating. Even more importantly, the culture at Westfield has been shaken and employees at all levels must wonder what kind of company they work for. This calls for a sincere "teaching moment" for Westfield's CEO to make it clear that the behavior Morris-Robertson endured was an aberration and will not be repeated. He must demonstrate senior management's commitment to ensure that the work environment at Westfield is not just free of hostility but genuinely nurturing. And he must understand that winning back employee trust will not be easy and it will not come soon.

- Jon Harmon

Toyota ordeal is far from over

Toyota so wants its crisis to be over. From President Akio Toyoda down to the receptionist at a small town Toyota dealership, they have to be feeling oppressed and unfairly picked on. You can almost hear a collective cry of "Enough already!"

But they must resist feelings of self-pity or they will find themselves even deeper in the  mire.

Toyota leadership, beginning with Toyoda, must be vigilant in not letting "victim confusion" (in the words of crisis counselor Jim Lukaszewski) settle into the psyche of the people of Toyota. As tough as the criticism has been in the media and in Congress, they have to remember who the real victims are in this crisis: legions of Toyota customers, not just those who have been involved in accidents related to sudden acceleration or faulty brakes but the millions of Toyota customers now worried about their safety.

Managing through a lengthy and contentious crisis is hard, thankless work. It is only natural for those on the crisis team (and others within the company) to think of themselves as the victims of overly aggressive critics. Only when their "relentless pursuit" in addressing their customers' worries takes precedence over their own desire for it all to be over, will they be able to begin to regain the trust of their customers and the public at large. 

Akio Toyoda's testimony to Congress this week was a good first step. I was most encouraged to read that he had pledged that a diligent effort within his company will continue to search for any and all root causes of the vexing sudden acceleration effort. The company believes the problem is purely mechanical, not electronic, but it will continue to investigate thoroughly, he said. 

Toyota's investigative work must continue without preconceived biases against finding electronic root causes. The temptation once the company has gone "all in" (in declaring that scrunching a small shim into customers' gas pedal assemblies will fix a purely mechanical problem) is to conduct an investigation determined to prove the company right.

If it turns out that there is more to the problem than sticky gas pedals, the crisis Toyota has endured so far will seem like a walk in the park.  And if it turns out that Toyota was less than forthright and comprehensive in its safety invesigations since Toyoda "got religion."

And even if the suspicions of an underlying electronic mishap don't turn out to be warranted, the scrutiny Toyota must endure is far from over.

There will another Congressional hearing next week. There will be more leaks of embarrassing documents and broadsides from safety advocates and campaigning politicians. It will all seem unfair. But Toyota leadership must seize the moment — a time to continue to demonstrate a reawakened commitment to quality and dedication to the customer, and a new-found ability to listen attentively to complaints and criticism. And a teaching moment for Akio and other leaders to redirect the energies of Toyota's capable people to deliver on these commitments, even ahead of imperatives to reduce cost and to grow relentlessly, all the while resisting the temptation to succumb to self-pity.

- Jon Harmon