The inconvenient truth of a flat world

13 07 2010

The infamous gas pedal. Source: Wsj.com

I grew up in a small town lost in the French Pyrénées. The three or four drunks, bolted to their seats in the village’s only bar, were my first encounter with pundits. With all due respect to all the “real” pundits populating the mediasphere, I am just saying that strongly voicing your opinions on various subjects, some of which you barely understand, is ingrained in human nature. We inherently value people with strong opinions and resent the ones unable to provide a clear black/white answer – ask any climate scientist grilled during a congressional hearing! By saying this, I am also guilty of a black & white description of the world. There are of course a lot of exceptions to what I just said; but, underestimating how widespread this phenomenon is would be a great mistake.

Ask Toyota!

Today, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled: “Crash Data Suggest Driver Error in Toyota Accidents.” Remember all the fuss about Toyota’s safety recalls a couple of months ago? Remember how people did not believe them when Toyota said that it was just a sticky gas pedal and floor mat issue? Well, they got sued, more than a 100 times, for sudden acceleration due to faulty electronics. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration own investigation of the 3000+ complaints it received, only one incident so far could be linked to a faulty equipment – a sticky floor mat. The rest, it turns out to be people mistakenly flooring the gas pedal instead of the brakes. This is a perfect example of how the tiniest flaw can be magnified and become the ugliest scar. Unless the NHTSA changes its conclusions, recalling only the concerned models with the sticky gas pedal and floor mat would have been enough – as Toyota did. But, in this case, it was too little and above all too late. Pundits and other “amplifiers” had already taken over the story and blew it out of proportion. It resulted in the worst possible PR nightmare for Toyota! In the end, Toyota had to pay out of its own pocket the checking of the electronic boxes for all his fear-struck customers.

The moral of all of this is pretty simple. Back in my village, when you were doing too well for yourself, you knew that the smallest misstep would be blown out of proportion. Likewise, when you are Toyota or any leading company, be assure that any of your missteps will make a good story to ride on – despite sometimes the lack of evidence. This is even more true if you are a foreign company. Less than 2 months after the Toyota scandal, GM recalled 1.5 million vehicles for a windshield wiper fluid system that could ignite a fire. Pretty scary, huh? Did you hear about it?

Toyota made two mistakes: the first was to wait too long to recall those faulty floor mats and the second? They underestimated the power of a good story in the mediasphere.

Anyway, we all praise the wonders of a flat world but we tend to forget that it is way harder to hide in a flat world. In the online world, it is even worse. People will always looking for good stories that move them emotionally – fear, love, guilt, etc. The veracity of the story becomes even secondary. Heck! You can be considered dead unless you tweet otherwise! Companies, be ready to beef up your PR department! Stormy weather ahead!

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