TOKYO - After being pilloried for his less-than-perfect English, bowing technique and other bungles, the head of Toyota Motor Corp will need a crash course in preparing for his debut in the U.S. Congress next week.
Akio Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota's founder, has succumbed to pressure to testify before a congressional panel next Wednesday, ending days of uncertainty about how the embattled automaker would respond to safety issues.
The trip to Washington follows what many see as public relations flops by the world's largest automaker over a recall of more than 6 million vehicles in the U.S. market for problems involving the accelerator pedal becoming stuck.
Media shy Toyoda faces one of the toughest challenges of his life time in crafting and delivering a message that can resonate with millions of consumers, investors, employees and lawmakers around the world.
He is likely to undergo a series of intense preparation sessions that will involve a range of departments rushing to gather information for their boss. One consultant said Toyota may hire lawyers to help drill Toyoda with mock questions.
They will probably have an international law firm come in with a foreign lawyer and ask him possible questions in English, to test if he can understand them and answer them properly, said Kuniyoshi Shirai, executive adviser at ACE Consulting Inc, who has advised Japanese executives appearing in U.S. courts.
Content will be important, so he will undergo tough checks to see if his comments are conveyed accurately.
A Toyota spokeswoman declined to say what the company would do to prepare for the testimony.
The decision to appear before lawmakers is itself a step forward for Toyoda, who has been criticized for being too slow to address consumers about a safety crisis that has tarnished the company's reputation, hurt sales and sapped profits.
Deborah Hayden, managing partner for communications consultancy Kreab Gavin Anderson in Japan, said Toyoda, just seven months into the top job, shouldn't rely on simple translation of what he wants to say in Japanese into English.
They've got to be very careful. They've got to be very factual. The statements can't be bland generalizations, they must be easily supported by facts -- they'll have a lot of lawyers looking at what he says, she said.
Showing sincerity will be crucial for the testimony, although Toyoda would need to balance the need to be contrite with the risks of taking legal responsibility and adding grist for more lawsuits.
At a news conference in Japan earlier this month, Toyoda apologized for safety problems, but came under fire for not bowing deeply enough in a country where the angle of a bow can change its meaning from I am very sorry to simply Hello.
Public relations experts also stressed the need for Toyoda to speak honestly and comprehensively.
Of course (the company) will be bombarded with tough questions, said Yoshiyuki Kaneshige, president and CEO of International Emergency Management Organization Inc.
But the important thing is that they answer with no lies.
Even the choice of travel can come under scrutiny, with U.S. auto executives criticized in 2008 for flying private jets to Washington, although their purpose for speaking in Congress was to make pleas for a public bailout.
A Toyota source said it not yet been decided whether Toyoda, the highest profile Japanese executive to face a such a grilling from Congress, would speak in Japanese or English.
But the company has already contacted some translation companies, the source said, while PR consultants said he should speak only in Japanese.
Toyoda, who has a degree from Babson College in the United States, has so far appeared to struggle when giving comments in English at news conferences.
His use of English has been his way of showing sincerity, of communicating directly with the (international) audience, but this is a crisis situation, said Masato Takahashi, a public relations consultant who advises companies on crisis management.
He should have just spoken Japanese and he should stick to Japanese from now on too. It'll be safer and leave less room for mistakes.
Toyoda may not want to risk worrying about grammar and pronunciation when he may also need to mind his body language. While his bows were the target of criticism in Japan, eye contact could become an issue in the United States.
A humble Japanese who's in apology mode might not necessarily look people in the eye as much as a Westerner would, said Hayden of Kreab Gavin Anderson.
This in America, and internationally, may be misinterpreted as weakness or perhaps trying to hide something.
(Additional reporting by Mariko Katsumura and Nobuhiro Kubo; Editing by Jean Yoon)