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Toyota Southern Calif. dealers hire crisis-management firm

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Toyota Southern Calif. dealers hire crisis-management firm

Mark Rechtin

Automotive News -- February 12, 2010 - 3:31 pm ET

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LOS ANGELES -- Unhappy with the media's handling of Toyota's unintended-acceleration crisis, Toyota's Southern California dealer association has retained crisis-manager-to-the-stars Sitrick and Co. to get their story across.

Sitrick has been hired to give media training to dealers, set up meetings between dealers and the media, and serve as an on-air spokesman on the dealers' behalf.

“The true and accurate story has not gotten out there,” said Michael Sitrick, whose list of hundreds of clients ranges from AIG to Paris Hilton.

“We want to make sure that, when the media reports on this issue, they get the correct facts and get the dealers' point of view. We want to make sure consumers understand what has been done, and what is being done, to deal with their concerns and ensure their satisfaction.”

Worried by ‘sensationalistic reporting'

Norris Bishton, a Toyota dealer since 1983, has been worried by the “sensationalistic reporting of these recalls.”

“Dealers are being constantly called by newspapers and TV stations. Camera crews are showing up on lots. Dealers in general are not equipped with to handle these things,” Bishton said.

One dealer, who declined to be identified, said dealers have been repeatedly shocked by Toyota's handling of the crisis.

The dealer is dismayed by the continual changing of Toyota's story regarding the flaws in its cars, as well as the decision to have Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. CEO Yoshi Inaba appear before Congressional investigators, instead of having an American face represent Toyota.

Other worries include the vacuum prompted by recent retirements of top Toyota Motor Sales PR executive Irv Miller and government relations executive Steve Sturm. The dealer also was shocked by the seeming unpreparedness of Jim Lentz, COO of Toyota Motor Sales, on the Today show interview with Matt Lauer.


Bishton, a practicing trial lawyer, said, “Things are out of perspective.” He characterized the Today interview as “A case of ‘gotcha.' The questions were unfair and the time to answer them was unfair.”

Mike Michels, spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales, said Toyota was aware that the dealers had hired an outside firm.

“They are independent businesses, with perhaps different priorities and messages, just as they have their own ad agency,” Michels said.

He said Toyota and Sitrick have not made contact, but that he is eager to coordinate messages and provide “considerable resources” to help Sitrick.

“There are a lot of challenges and unrelated issues to this,” Michels said. “We welcome all resources possible.”

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