Aug 06

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.