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How to best communicate an automotive product recall

Vehicle recalls have historically been one of the biggest sources of negativity for carmakers. In the past month alone mainstream media coverage has focused on Toyota’s global recall of 2.87m vehicles due to potential seatbelt malfunctions, a 5m airbag control unit recall by Continental Automotive Systems and the string of car firms recalling models which feature Takata’s potentially faulty airbag inflators.

Product recalls are an ever-present reality for automotive manufacturers, especially as the reliance increases on global supply chains and outsourcing. For communications professionals, this situation has made the swift and effective response to a recall event a key part of their role.

To help in this process, alva has conducted analysis of product recalls for three manufacturers in order to answer the following questions:

  • What are the coverage volumes for automotive recalls?
  • What are the variables that can affect these volumes and sentiment towards the manufacturer?
  • What therefore are the main elements to focus on when communicating a product recall?

Figure I: Scope of Analysis

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 16.34.45

What are the coverage volumes for automotive recalls?

Figure II: Recall coverage volumes for the automotive sector post event

Recall coverage volumes for the automotive sector post event

As we can clearly see from Figure II, coverage and reporting on a recall can vary significantly. Getting to the heart of what drives this great variance is the purpose of our analysis.

Figure III: Ranking of automotive recall coverage volumes including key variables

Ranking of automotive recall coverage volumes including key variables

Which are the key variables affecting recalls?

Figure III ranks the four case studies from lowest to highest based on the amount of content their recalls generated. Given that recalls are generally negative in sentiment, the premise is that the lower the coverage volumes, the better for any manufacturer involved in such a situation. Alongside the overall volumes, we also list out different variables which may or may not have impacted the size of the recall. These are what we investigate in the analysis.

Number of vehicles affected

The number of vehicles recalled by a manufacturer is a key factor in determining the final impact of the event on the company’s reputation. When Continental Automotive Systems announced it would recall 5m vehicles, the resulting volumes generated were 4.9 times higher compared to when Toyota issued a recall for 625k Prius models because of a software glitch. The data therefore supports the premise that size does matter when it comes to the impact of a recall. However, this cannot be the sole determining factor as the Toyota RAV4 seatbelt recall generated 3.5 times more content, despite affecting only 40% as many vehicles.

The presence of legacy issues related to recalls

When Toyota announced the recall of its RAV4 model over a potential seatbelt malfunction, 10% of coverage referenced the company’s 2010 recall of vehicles that could suffer from “sudden unintended acceleration”. Interestingly, the Toyota Prius recall for a software glitch did not carry any reference to the unintended acceleration issue. This is likely to be because this particular recall did not carry the same safety threat as the RAV4’s seat belt issue, shielding it from comparisons to the 2010 event.

While inconclusive on its own, this indicates the heightened media and consumer interest in organisations which are perceived to be “repeat offenders” for a certain issue, something which TalkTalk experienced during its cybersecurity problems last year.

Extension of a recall to include more models

When a manufacturer is forced to expand a vehicle recall to include more models there is a high probability of the second recall receiving greater scrutiny. This was the case for Nissan as it issued a first recall for its Maxima model due to fuel tank-related issues in August 2015 and expanded it to include the company’s Altima version in October. This resulted in 24 times more coverage than the initial recall and surpassed Toyota’s 625k Prius recall in terms of total coverage volumes.

Share of voice through company spokespeople

Even though 36% of coverage on Nissan expanding its Maxima/Altima model recall referenced a company spokesman, the intervention failed to significantly mitigate sentiment towards the company as he merely commented “that no Infiniti luxury brand vehicles are affected by the recalls”.

Similarly, Continental Automotive Systems spokeswoman, Mary Arraf, succeeded in raising coverage sentiment as she assured the company is “working closely with all potentially impacted vehicle manufacturers on this issue”, but did not result in a substantial impact as her message was only present in 9% of reports.


The key findings from this analysis are:

  • The size of the recall is one of the key drivers of the volume of content produced, however it is not the sole determining factor: injuries suffered preceding the recall (RAV4 and Continental Automotive Systems) and a legacy reputation for large recalls (Toyota), both act as an amplifier of interest.
  • A relatively small recall can see coverage disproportionately increased by the presence of further, later recalls. This was the case for Nissan, whose recall expansion saw coverage of its modest 44.5k cars recalled eclipse that of the much larger recall of 625k Toyota Prius.
  • Spokesperson share of voice does matter, but is not a critical factor. The companies analysed in this study were largely unsuccessful at generating significant spokesperson penetration in reporting and the effectiveness when they did was minimal. For Nissan even though 36% of coverage referenced the company’s spokesman his intervention failed to significantly mitigate negative sentiment.

Please contact us for further information on how reputation and media intelligence can identify risks and opportunities for your company.


*Content volumes represents the total number of individual pieces of coverage (print, online, Twitter etc) for each of the recalls tracked.

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