When lawyers call the shots, corporations typically lose in the court of public opinion

Proving the old adage that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, Yamaha Corporation, makers of a white hot, off-road vehicle called the Rhino, were absolutely skewered by CBS evening News investigative reporter Armen Keteyian.

August 6 Doing his best retro impersonation of Mike Wallace in the latter’s halcyon 60 Minutes’ days, Keteyian dug deep into Yamaha’s files to find damaging memos, pulled off a beautiful ambush interview in the corporation’s lobby and enlisted the support of the new head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission to absolutely crucify the organization for knowing all about rollover problems with the Rhino, and doing nothing about it.
Keteyian interviewed a consumer who’d lost his hand as a result of a Rhino rollover, aired a video from a Yamaha dealership in which a salesman rolled his Rhino over in the parking lot and, get this, unearthed a 2002 internal company memo admitting that Yamaha’s president and vice president had both been injured when they’d taken the Rhino for a spin. Ouch!

I cringed as I watched minute after minute of evidence pile up and waited for the Yamaha response. It finally came after the ambush interview (in which an armed security guard ordered Keteyian to leave Yamaha’s lobby. That certainly projected a warm, fuzzy feeling). Yamaha’s response? A few paragraphs from in-house lawyers pointing to the Rhino’s spotless safety record and suggesting that any accidents were the result of reckless driving by over enthusiastic enthusiasts (Hey Yamaha: Ever hear of the Ford-Firestone SUV rollover crisis?).

The Yamaha Rhino story is a textbook example of how not to handle a breaking crisis and yet another example of how badly lawyers can bungle corporate reputation. Lawyers live, eat and breathe caution. And, in a situation such as this, are far more concerned about legal liabilities down the road than popular perception today. And, that’s what will cost Yamaha dearly in the weeks and months to come.

I’m not privy to the facts of the case, but I do know that Yamaha should have been much more forthcoming in admitting guilt (assuming Keteyian’s facts are true). They should also launch an internal investigation of the product, suspend manufacturing until the flaws are found and fixed, and compensate the victims of any Rhino rollovers.

Corporate communications executives like to talk about how our profession is increasingly ‘earning a seat’ at the table and playing a more strategic role in an organization’s business decisions. The Yamaha crisis reminds us, once again, that far too many corporations still see PR as little more than a staff function.

8 thoughts on “When lawyers call the shots, corporations typically lose in the court of public opinion

  1. If you read closely – that was not a Rhino – it was a prototype that had nothing to do with the Rhino. Why would any company put a product on it had injured its own executives? Does that make any sense to you? Watch that video again. See the first guy negotiate a turn and then watch the second guy. The guy goofing around was disciplined for horseplay. Plus,he was driving on pavement I really do encourage you to read Yamaha’s statement on their site.

  2. Since you obviously know more about the case than me, Nate, tell me how Yamaha explained the dealership video depicting one of their Rhinos rolling over and the 2002 memo indicating two top executives had been injured in one of their own Rhinos? Thanks.

  3. That is simply not true. If you read the online piece you will see that “Yamaha did provide several off-camera interviews and answers to written questions.” They in fact were very responsive and only refused an on-camera interview. One simply cannot do much when a news organization decides to do a one-sided piece – no matter how much information they provide. Read the statement on truthaboutrhino.com. Yamaha also provide information on the two “victims” that CBS chose not to include in the piece. For example, Justin Miller was driving a highly modified unit – the owner put extensive modifications in and signed a waiver. Also, Miller told the police he was going 20 mph down a hill and hit a rock. There is a difference in “responding to allegations” – which Yamaha actually did and selective editing by a media outlet.

  4. I’d hardly call the CBS Evening News piece ‘shlock.’ The point of my blog is that, regardless of the facts, Yamaha did a terrible job of responding to the allegations. CBS reported they’d only received a written letter from Yamaha lawyers. Period. The lawyers may be better able to control the legalities of the crisis with such a ‘non-response,’ but they’ve already lost in the court of public opinion.

  5. You should not blog when you don’t have all the facts. As a PR guy you should recognize a shlock media piece when you see one. Do you do PR for plaintiff lawyers? Do you really believe that Yamaha should not defend its product when it believes that there are no design defects so that it could get good PR? Visit truthaboutrhino.com for the facts.

  6. Thanks Linda. I have to believe that was the case with the infamous ‘Big Three’ corporate jet flight fiasco last Fall, many of AIGs image issues, etc. Corporate communications experts would have forewarned CEOs about the obvious mistakes they were about to make. At Peppercom, I’d guess we have a ‘seat’ with about half our client base. Others keep us so far removed I sometimes feel like the C-suite table is located on the dark side of the moon.

  7. “The Yamaha crisis reminds us, once again, that far too many corporations still see PR as little more than a staff function.”
    Painful to read, but so true. For all the talk about sitting at the same board table, PR is still left out of the equation when a crisis occurs.