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What Toyota Must Say to Congress

Toyota executives, led by CEO Akio Toyoda (above), will seek to revive the company's flagging image when they appear at congressional hearings this week.
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TORRANCE, Calif. (


) --


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CEO Akio Toyoda cannot just apologize and accept responsibility for the automaker's mistakes.

That much is expected when Toyoda and other executives appear at two congressional hearings this week. Toyoda will testify before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, but other Toyota executives will attend the Tuesday session of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"It's not enough to say he's sorry," said Satish Jayachandran, associate professor of marketing in the University of South Carolina Moore School of Business. "In Toyota's case, the issue goes to the root of the car, so they have to show clarity to explain the problem and to address what's being done."

After turning over documents to oversight committee during the weekend, Toyota said Monday it has received subpoenas seeking documents about unintended acceleration and related matters from both a federal grand jury and from the Los Angeles office of the

Securities and Exchange Commission


To underscore its commitment to safety and reliability, the automaker should extend its warranties to 10 years, said John Wolkonowicz, senior auto industry analyst at IHS Global Insight. "If the cars are as good as they say they are, it won't cost much," he said.

On Friday, golfer Tiger Woods apologized for his mistakes and accepted responsibility, but he refused to take questions from reporters. Toyoda has already faced the media during multiple news conferences in Japan, and will no encounter similarly tough questioning from Congress. "He has to be very contrite, and not give them any fodder," Wolkonowicz said.

When the Detroit Three auto executives appeared before Congress in November 2008, perhaps the most overwhelming impression they made was one of wealthy guys who prefer to travel in private jets. Toyoda would be wise to travel to the U.S. on a commercial flight: He could arrive on one of Japan's two international carriers and return on the other.

Appearing before Congress carries risks, of course, given the propensity for congressional grandstanding as well as the serious safety issues facing the company. At the same time, Toyota has friends in Congress, largely as a result of being a major employer in several states.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda

Already, the governors of Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Mississippi have

signed a letter supporting the company. And Toyota employees and dealers have been


Not being a native English speaker could help or hurt. People will give him the benefit of the doubt (if) he doesn't entirely understand," Jayachandran said. "But it's not that significant. The important thing he has to communicate is that he stands behind the product."

Jayachandran added that while Woods has probably lost his image as a role model, Toyota is likely to regain its status. "Trust is easy to lose and difficult to regain, but Toyota has a chance," he said, if it takes steps like extending the warranty.

"We all screw up," said Mitch Free, CEO of MFG.Com, an online marketplace for manufacturers and a contributor to TheStreet. "Companies are judged not by their screw-ups, but by how they recovered. The elegance is in the recovery."

In the Japanese culture, said Free, apologies are real: people accept responsibility and "work hard to make it right." The maintenance-related 1985 crash of a Japan Airlines flight, which killed 520 people, led to the resignation of the airline's president and to the suicide of a maintenance manager, recalled Free, a one-time maintenance executive at Northwest Airlines.

Toyota was known as "the poster child for lean manufacturing, which is built around exposing problems, figuring out how to solve them and listening to the customer," he said. "But they started focusing on being the biggest. They have to get back to where they were -- the customer doesn't really care if they are the biggest."

Wolkonowicz said Toyota could emerge better off because of its current advertising blitz and, potentially, a warranty extension -- just so long as "Congress doesn't find some real wrongdoing, such as covering stuff up after they found out about it."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.