Even prior to Toyota's spate of recalls from 2009 to 2011, the automaker has issued press releases for every recall.
Mike Michels, vice president of communications at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., says the practice ensures that accurate information is disseminated widely and quickly. Michels says media coverage also helps influence consumers to bring recalled vehicles to dealers to be fixed.
"We get the question internally, 'Why are we doing this?'" he said. "There's some pretty clear evidence that issuing a press release makes certain that it's accurate, the facts are out there and who to call if a reporter needs more information.
"We think it supports what we know NHTSA wants to do, and we do too, and that's maximize our response rates."
Michels says response rates — the percentage of customers who bring a recalled vehicle in for service — in highly publicized recalls hit 90 percent or more, such as when Toyota recalled about 139,000 Priuses in the United States in 2010 to repair brakes that could potentially slip.
Sometimes, company communications officials have to prod colleagues to open up about a problem. In a January 2010 e-mail, Irv Miller, then group vice president for environmental and public affairs at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., urged company officials to "come clean" about mechanical failures in accelerator pedals ahead of a meeting with NHTSA.
The following week, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles because their accelerator pedals could stick and not fully recoil. Miller's e-mail surfaced about four months later, along with information indicating Toyota had been aware of the problem since October 2009. The delay ultimately led to a fine of more than $16 million from U.S. safety regulators and embarrassing public statements acknowledging the company had communicated poorly during the run-up to its recalls.
American Honda also issues press releases for every vehicle recall, a practice the company began around late 2009. Sage Marie, senior manager of automobile public relations for American Honda, says the company makes spokespeople available 24 hours a day to answer recall related questions from media.
Honda also monitors consumer attitudes about the Honda brand online in real time. Marie says that recalls rarely, if ever, generate negative sentiment towards the brand.
"People don't really get upset by it. It's relatively routine," he said. "Rarely does it rise to the point where there's a lot of emotion or negativity involved, even at the consumer level."
Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman whose specializes in recalls, says mainstream interest in recalls has grown over the last few years. One of Honda's main goals during recalls is to be proactive and provide as much information as possible.
"We don't wait for news to break on the NHTSA Web site," Martin said. "If the news media has the right information it helps control the speculation."