Toyota and Tiger: Do Apologies Matter?

I’m still not sure that Tiger Woods owes anyone — beyond his wife and family — an apology. I was thinking about that again this morning while grinding away on the elliptical trainer and watching early morning TV. Tiger may want to apologize. And he may need to apologize — to rescue his career, endorsements, reputation and marriage. But I don’t believe he really owes me an apology.

And does his apology really matter all that much beyond his personal situation? Nah. Not in the long run. We’re talking about golf — and a professional athlete.

The executives at Toyota have a bigger hurdle to get over. And how they couple a sincere apology — with responsible corporate action — has huge implications for car owners and buyers, employees, communities and the economies of the United States, Japan and other countries.

Toyota is a company that is in deep doo-doo.

Here’s from a WaPo article, “Congress says Toyota misled public about runaway cars, engine electronics“:

Congressional investigators Monday accused Toyota officials of making misleading public statements about the causes of its runaway cars and faulted federal safety regulators for conducting “cursory and ineffective” investigations because of a crippling lack of expertise.

The charges from House members amplify the unprecedented scrutiny focused on the beleaguered automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition to three congressional committees, which are holding hearings beginning Tuesday, a federal grand jury has subpoenaed company documents relating to unintended acceleration, and so has the Securities and Exchange Commission, Toyota announced Monday.

So it will be interesting to see how this all plays out — in Congress, perhaps in court, in the media and with the public.

James Lentz, Toyota’s U.S. sales chief, becomes the company’s lead-off big hitter, appearing before a Congressional committee today. Here’s from his testimony, released in advance of the session and reported by WSJ.com:

In his prepared testimony, released by Toyota ahead of a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday morning, Mr. Lentz apologized for the company’s failure to move more quickly to address safety problems.

“Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith efforts. The problem has also been compounded by poor communications both within our company and with regulators and consumers,” Mr. Lentz is expected to say, according to the prepared testimony.

“We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize for them and we have learned from them. We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators,” Mr. Lentz is expected to say. Mr. Lentz will cite recent actions by Toyota to recall Toyota Prius and other hybrid models and certain Toyota Tacoma pickups to address safety concerns.

Setting aside any possible legal/criminal issues, Toyota faces the challenge of regaining trust. And as we used to talk about in public relations classes at Kent State, that’s why ethical conduct and decision-making are so important.

And not only does Toyota owe many an apology — it needs to demonstrate responsible action and responsibility in a situation that really is important.

So here is a case where an apology does matter — but only as an important first step in what might be a long journey to regain trust.

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