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Can Toyota Digg out of its recall hole?

Toyota USA president Jim Lentz appeared on Digg Dialogg to explain how Toyota is addressing its recall problems.

By / February 8, 2010

Toyota (USA) President Jim Lentz, shown here at the Detroit Auto Show in January, spoke directly to consumers Feb. 8 on the Internet's Digg Dialogg.

Mark Blinch/Reuters/File

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[Editor's note: We corrected some of the spelling in the Digg questions.]

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As on-camera interviews with executives go, the Digg Dialogg interview Monday with Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, was compelling Internet drama.

It shed light on how Toyota is likely to respond to charges that it knew about sudden-acceleration problems for several years. Even more important, it was an intriguing gauge of what consumers are thinking about the spate of Toyota recalls.

If this democratic approach is the future of investigative journalism, the questions were eye-opening.

For example, a news conference with regular journalists would never have started with this question (the most popular with 285 diggs from the Digg community):

"What do you drive?" Answer: A Lexus hybrid with Priuses for his wife (2006) and his son (2010) -- the model year with reports of brake problems.

The second most pressing question (213 diggs): "How far along is Toyota on moving into some truly gas free cars in the future?"

(Democratic journalism doesn't always get to the point immediately.)

At the same time, there were hard-hitting questions that were more authentic than anything from an investigative journalist:

"I was a General Manager of one of your largest dealerships in the US. I was aware that this problem dates back to 2004. In fact, there was a death involved in a sudden acceleration incident at an Atlantic City Hotel in a Camry that our dealership sold. At this point is Toyota's position going to change as to the dates involved?"

Answer: Toyota is confident it has the answers for the problems it knows about. "You have to continue to looking at the reports that you're getting," Mr. Lentz said. "There are many other possibilities" for sudden acceleration.

Tuffy777 weighed in with this: "Toyota has electronic data recorders in the cars -- yet they refused to release the data when I was in a crash, and it would have proven that the accident was not my fault. So I lost my car, my health and thousands of dollars. And now you say you can't track down the cause of this problem. Why not release the electronic data?"

Answer: The recorders are experimental and only capture a tiny slice of data. "Unfortunately, in his case, they're not advanced enough to be really useful," Lentz said.

Host Dave Yewman did a good job of mixing questions of his own with those from viewers, but he missed the important follow-up question here: If the recorders don't reveal anything, why not release the data?

These unfiltered dialogues with customers and would-be customers are crucial for Toyota to begin rebuilding its brand, says Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president who heads the crisis practice of Levick Strategic Communications, a consulting firm based in Washington. "It's intelligent of Toyota to be doing this... They need to be seeking more opportunities and more venues where they can communicate more directly with consumers."

All in all, Toyota's corporate fate remains to be seen. But it was an auspicious step for democratic journalism.

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