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Can Toyota Digg its way out of recall crisis?

The reeling Japanese automaker turns from old school PR to new media.

The clouds are looming around Toyota in this picture of taken outside a showroom in Sofia, Bulgaria, Feb. 4, 2010. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

CHICAGO — As Toyota careened from one recall crisis to the next, the contrast was almost funny.

In one corner, we had pure Kabuki theater — a highly-stylized corporate drama playing out on the world stage.

At a hastily-called news conference in Nagoya on Feb. 5, Akio Toyoda — Toyota president and grandson of the company's legendary founder Kiichiro Toyoda — bowed deeply in remorse before a gaggle of Japanese photographers. He then, dutifully, uttered phrases like "personal responsibility," "deeply regretted," and "very sorry."

Finally, Toyoda announced a new "taskforce" under his control to look into quality problems, and skedaddled.

It was everything you'd expect from a Japanese mea culpa (minus the ritual suicide) — stoic, very public and, of course, entirely predictable.

But then something interesting happened.

I received (along with thousands of other people) an email, with an invitation to visit this page on the popular social media website Digg:

Toyota wants to hear from you — submit and vote up questions below!

With the recent controversy surrounding the Toyota vehicle recall, Jim Lentz, President and Chief Operating Officer of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, will answer the Digg community’s top questions for a very timely and topical live Digg Dialogg. He will be sitting down with Digg to provide perspective on what happened, what they’re doing about it and what consumers need to know about the recall. Submit and Digg questions from now until Monday, February 8th at 8 a.m. PT to decide which will be asked in this exclusive interview.

Of course, "exclusive" is pushing things a bit. Lentz has been on an old media blitz all week, yapping to everyone from the Today Show, to ABC News, to NPR about how it's safe to drive a Toyota.

But the Digg Dialogue is different. In essence, Toyota's U.S. boss is laying himself out before the site's 40 million rowdy users, any of whom have a chance to ask him — in no uncertain terms and in a most public forum — WTF?

As of this writing, Digg's minions have submitted 1,076 questions. They are, naturally, diverse in tone and subject. But they seem to be falling into several important categories.

Some ask about the recall and the company's response:

  • Omahahaha: My question is WHY? Why did it take Toyota so long, to even acknowledge that there were issues with their vehicles? Why did Toyota wait until they were under world-scrutiny, to even come forward and admit that there might be safety concerns, and other issues involved? How many more injuries and deaths would it take?
  • symmetrical: How are you dismissing your earlier assertion that floor mats were to blame? Your attorneys will of course recommend you not answer this question.
  • ttwiv: Apple co-founder Steve Wasniak says he has identified a software problem in his Prius that results in unwanted acceleration. Given his credibility in the software industry, have you considered contacting him to follow-up on his findings?

Others delve into more political aspects of the crisis:

  • minnesotayoyo: The U.S. government is now a major stakeholder in both G.M. and Chrysler. In light of the recent Toyota recalls, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made official statements regarding the reliability and safety of Toyota vehicles. Do you think LaHood and the DOT are unfairly biased against automakers that the government does not have vested interest in?
  • deafalla: Do you feel that GM's partnership with the US Government is the reason this issue was so publicized? And does this bother you that a problem this big went on for so long? Does QA know of any other issues that may be outstanding that we should know of?
  • akarsvp222: Do you think Toyota is being unfairly targeted by the NHTSA?

Another group is concerned with technical aspects of automotive manufacturing: