As recalls mount, Toyota presses for a fix to its image

Automaker looks to sway hearings planned on defects

By Alan Fram
Associated Press / February 10, 2010

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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, maybe even steer them if it can.

It’s part of an all-out drive by the world’s biggest auto manufacturer to redeem its once unassailable brand - hit anew yesterday 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, facing congressional inquiries and government investigations, Toyota through its lawyers and lobbyists is working full-speed to salvage its reputation. The confidential 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.

Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, said Toyota representatives visited his offices seeking to learn all they could. “They’re probing us. ‘What are you going to ask us, where are you going with this whole thing?’ ’’ said Stupak, who is chairman of a House panel looking into Toyota’s problems.

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 specialists 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.

In other developments:

■ 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, said there was substantial evidence that remedies such as redesigned floor mats have failed to solve problems. The hearing was postponed until Feb. 24 due to expected snow.

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

Toyota faces at least two congressional hearings besides Stupak’s, including the one delayed by snow. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and a longtime supporter of Toyota, said his panel will hold a hearing on March 2 after the two by the House.

Their focus: 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 for Toyota mixes apology, openness, details about a specific fix - plus a little help from friends on Capitol Hill.

Toyota is expected to turn to its natural allies - lawmakers from states with Toyota plants or offices. Republicans are considered especially likely to back the company, whose workers are not unionized.

Friendly legislators can limit the duration of congressional hearings and ask favorable questions that would give Toyota officials a chance to tell their side of the story. Their goal would compress unfavorable news stories about the hearings to as few days as possible, while making sure the company avoids being confrontational.