Public Relations' Role in Launching Hybrid Automobiles Thesis

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Thesis on Public Relations' Role in Launching Hybrid Automobiles Assignment

Public relations strategies must be tightly integrated to the core strategic planning, product development and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives within any company if it is to succeed in the 21st century. Given how transparent all forms of communication are becoming due to Web 2.0 and social networking (Bernoff, Li, 2008), it is critical that companies realize the importance of having the many facets of public relations tightly integrated into the strategic planning process. Communications and public relations strategies have progressed from being tactical to strategic in scope, driven by the increased transparency fostered by the development of the Internet and all forms of social media, and the heightened concerns surrounding all forms of compliance including the reporting of significant financial events as mandated by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (2002) which is often referred to as SOX for short. These significant external factors are forcing communications strategies in general and public relations specifically into a critically strategic role in all companies. Internal factors including the rapid pace of new product development and introductions, the quickening pace of distribution channel development, and the rapid changes in how companies get products developed, sold and serviced all increasingly rely on communications as the platform of managing change. The organizational aspects of public relations are essential of any organization is to stay coordinated, enabling collaboration both within the departments of the company but also with suppliers, channel partners, service providers, stakeholders and shareholders. The broader societal aspects of public relations are among the most important strategic considerations of any organization. Earning and retaining trust by being in compliance to financial reporting initiatives including SOX (Kirk, 2005), and the continual management of corporate reputations (Plummer, 2005) are so strategic today that organizations really don't have a choice to make public relations a strategic priority; the world has become so transparent this must happen for the company to retain and grow trust. The organizational and societal public relations of Toyota with their introduction of the first mass-produced hybrid automobiles and the initial challenges they had with entirely new technologies as the basis of their vehicles are the subject of this paper. When one considers the extensive logistical and collaborative challenges to any auto maker of launching an entirely new type of automobile through their dealer, distributor, supplier, and services organizations, the critical need for a coordinated and synchronized set of organizational and societal public relations strategies are clear.

Integrating Public Relations into Launching Hybrid Automobiles at Toyota

Toyota is the acknowledged leader in the development of hybrid technologies, and has in fact pioneered the development of an entirely new series of technologies and processes that enable them to achieve production efficiencies unmatched by any other auto manufacturer globally in this area (Rapp, 2007).

In their unique competitive advantage of hybrid auto manufacturing there is the challenge of also managing their global supply chain that provides components for this family of cars. It has been argued in industry experts including Rupp (2007) that the nurturing of the supply chains was critical to the development of a successful business model around hybrid automobile production. The paradox from a public relations standpoint however is how to both nurture and develop a supply chain so competitively unique and initially captive to Toyota without appearing monopolistic in intention. This is the fine line that Toyota had to initially walk with regard to its communication and public relations strategies, as the company had been the only manufacturer to successfully develop and launch a hybrid vehicle. The crux of the challenge is to position Toyota as a thought leader in hybrid auto development, supply chain development and execution, and production without appearing to be monopolistic in the process. Public relations as part of the broader communications strategic plan needed to create as many opportunities as possible for Toyota to connect with key influencers, members of the press, traditional and alterative media thought leaders including industry bloggers, and most importantly, early adopters of the autos themselves. These steps were all taken to ensure that advance information about the unique aspects of the hybrid auto would be communicated in the right context, and that Toyota's value proposition and stance on the nascent but rapidly growing supply chain was put into the right context. Toyota concentrated on this aspect of their communications strategy both from a regulatory standpoint as was mentioned earlier according to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (2002) but also to mitigate any potential claims of monopolistic behavior on their part as well (Rupp, 2007). This was specifically undertaken through a series of launch activities well in advance of the first hybrid models being shown to the public.

As the auto industry is incredibly transparent with new product development news and blogs including autoblog.com and Automotive News often breaks news about companies even before employees at the company know the news, the early development efforts of Toyota in the area of hybrid engine development permeated the press of this industry. From an organizational standpoint the challenges of keeping all departments, divisions, managers, and key executives on the same messaging and key points to be made to the press is critical. Making sure these key messages were communicated consistently and were well synchronized with each other was the primary objective of the public relations strategies defined prior to actual product launch.

Toyota realized that for the hybrid vehicles to be successful and accepted by their early adopters would need to be perceived as revolutionary and not monopolistic. Above all else, there needed to be the valuing of the environment placed strongly in the messaging of the hybrid product line, including attribution to Toyota's broader CSR initiatives including care for the environment.

To accomplish these public relations objectives as part of their broader communications platform, Toyota diligently worked to create a single voice on the hybrid engine development and later, the entire line of products that are based on this technology. Organizationally, Toyota also had significant responsibilities to disclose any financially material events related to the development of the new engines and autos as well. This is entirely consistent with the role of corporate public relations having an inherent need to stay focused and attentive to the role they play in defining corporate social responsibility (CSR) as well (Walker, 1990).

In addition to the need for ensuring a high level of transparency as it relates to compliance initiatives, and the timely coordination of key messaging on the development of hybrid technologies, Toyota's public relations strategies also needed to keep in mind the existing messaging related to their current product lines.

Organizationally this forced a very high level of synchronization between manufacturing engineering, production, sales, marketing, service and pricing, as all these departments are actively involved in the day-to-day managing of their existing product lines. The continual positioning of the hybrid technologies had to also be reinforced relative to existing product lines to ensure there was little if any cannibalization of existing product strategies as well. The challenge of not impacting the sales of their lower-end models which had mileage levels at the same or lower levels of miles-per-gallon ratings as the pre-announced models also had to be taken into account. The complexities of keeping all aspects of an organizational public relations strategy all synchronized takes continual effort and most importantly, a highly refined set of processes that ensure accuracy and timeliness of organizational communication. Integrating public relations into the broader set of strategic plans forced Toyota to define entirely new communications processes as well, many of which included social media including blogs and participation on Facebook for example, in addition to community sites that Toyota's Public Relations team had seen as critical to keeping the public informed. The entire area of consumer-generated media (CGM) was of critical concern to Toyota Public Relations as well, as they wanted to foster a "viral" reaction to hybrid technology but also be quick to respond to potential problems found as well. Development engineers had schedules assigned for actually monitoring CGM-based sites including blogs and other forms of media to monitor customers' first reactions and also solve many problems as well. Overall, having the technical expertise available to bloggers and others entering their comments online was a strategy not undertaken ever by an auto manufacturer before. Bloggers began writing about how Toyota had taken their feedback seriously and actually began writing about how Toyota had shown foresight in having engineering staff rotate throughout the entire blog and consumer feedback sites.

Societal and Organizational Public Relations at Toyota Define a New Market

The organizational aspects of public relations are primarily aimed at the development of a highly collaborative set of processes for making sure everyone in the company stays on the same message, states the correct dates of new product introductions, and stays out of the areas that are considered either too controversial or too theoretical to be accurately communicated outside the company. What Toyota did in defining these boundaries however was in effect… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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