Anatomy of a Smear

What do you do when bad news about you product gets out? If your highly prized brand is synonymous with reliability, job one is to kill the bearers of the bad tidings. While Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration stories regularly set up shop on the front pages of all national dallies these days, Safety Research and Strategies had been following this story closely for months before it broke through into the mainstream press.

After the Saylor family died in an SUA crash on a California highway in August, and Congress was poised to drag Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before its investigatory committees, SRS decided that a factual accounting of the history of this issue was necessary. We threw the resources of our small company into this project and wrote a lengthy report that gathered the public record into one narrative. We released Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration to the public on February 5, and it became a much used road map for reporters, Congressional staffers, attorneys and interested consumers trying to understand how seven years of complaints, crashes, deaths, injuries and NHTSA investigations could produce so few results.

That report was followed by a second technical paper, Toyota Electronic Throttle Control Investigation Preliminary Report, by Dr. David Gilbert, an automotive electronics professor from Southern Illinois University. Gilbert’s preliminary research concluded that Toyota’s repeated claim that the redundancy in the system made it impervious to an undetectable error was not true.  In fact, Toyota’s own scientists-for-hire, Exponent, validated Gilbert’s findings, but argued that a short circuit in the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor could not occur in the real world.  These attempts to find out why Toyota and Lexus vehicles were speeding out of control in a variety of driving circumstances that could not be explained by floor mats or driver error, earned SRS and Dr. Gilbert a top spot on the automaker’s enemies list. But no wildly successful global company takes down a critic willy-nilly. One must do some research, fine-tune the attack, craft the language that will resonate with the American public. Don’t just deflect, destroy.

In late February, just before the company was to roll out its counter offensive, Toyota apparently used its resources to research a marketing message that would more effectively undermine SRS.

An online survey conducted by Opinion Outpost in early March or late February prominently featured questions about Dr. Gilbert, ABC News and SRS. Opinion Outpost conducts polls for clients looking to survey a preferred demographic or market segment. The respondents are paid for each successfully completed survey in points which eventually can be redeemed for cash. This poll asked the survey takers to judge the credibility of Dr. David Gilbert, Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies and Brian Ross of ABC News. (See a portion of the Opinion Outpost survey)

In an article about Toyota’s tactics published by the LA Times last week, company spokesman Mike Michaels did not explicitly concede that Toyota had sponsored that survey; he said: “We do opinion surveys all the time. We were researching the potential for getting messages out, in particular for our advertising.”

The survey started with: “Prior to taking this survey, had you heard anything about Sean Kane’s report or Professor Gilbert’s test?”

Then, it proceeded to test more pointed messages:

“Toyota Motor Corp. is rebutting the findings of a study presented in a Congressional hearing and on ABC News that claimed to present evidence of a “design flaw” in Toyota’s electronics that could cause sudden unintended acceleration. The company says that this was a “parlor trick” that relied on manipulation of the wires and electronic system in a way that is “extremely unlikely” to ever occur in reality, and it could be done just as easily with vehicles from several competitors.”

“The American people deserve the truth about the safety of their cars, not biased studies by trial lawyer consultants who stand to make millions suing Toyota. The facts are: Toyota and its dealers are working around the clock to make things right for its customers. More than one million cars have already been repaired. And, a world-class engineering firm has conducted a comprehensive review of Toyota’s electronics. Their interim report confirms that our fail-safe systems work.”

“Sean Kane, a paid consultant for plaintiffs’ lawyers suing Toyota, and David Gilbert, an academic working for him, deliberately deceived Congress and the American people.”

“While Sean Kane claims to be an independent safety expert, he is the owner of a for-profit company that serves as a paid consultant for the plaintiff lawyers that are currently suing Toyota. Despite what he says, he is not working for the best interest and safety of the American people.”

“Sean Kane, the owner of Safety Research & Strategies Inc. who testified during the Congressional hearings, is a paid consultant for trial lawyers who are suing Toyota, not a “safety expert” advocating for consumers.”

This language popped up in a March 11 letter Toyota sent a letter to ABC President David Westin, demanding an apology for a story reported by Brian Ross on Dr. Gilbert’s study that the network aired on the eve of the first Congressional hearing. The letter hits all of the themes captured in the online opinion poll – Kane, Gilbert and their reports are tainted by litigation, ABC fabricated its test and together they are misleading Congress and the public. For example, Toyota General Counsel Christopher Reynolds writes that “the American public and the U.S. congress were seriously misled” by ABC, Kane and Gilbert. And he takes the network to task for concealing “the fact that Professor Gilbert’s work was financed by Sean Kane, a paid advocate for trial lawyers involved in litigation against Toyota.”

This is but a minor incursion in Toyota’s ongoing battle for its reputation and sales. The automaker is fighting multiple fronts – before Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in civil and criminal courts – and the court of public opinion. Toyota’s willingness to smear its critics, in lieu of refuting the criticism, is important to highlight, nonetheless. It is a tactic from a playbook that was created a half a century ago by Big Tobacco. The attack-deny-delay triple has proven remarkably effective – which is why many industries and companies use it to minimize the impact of negative information about their products.

Tomorrow, we’ll detail Dr. Gilbert’s story, as Toyota Tactics Week continues.

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