By Sam Nussey and Kantaro Komiya
TOKYO (Reuters) -When the head of Toyota announced on Thursday he would step down as CEO, Akio Toyoda opted for the news outlet he sees as the fairest source of information on the automaker’s environmental record: his own.
For the last three years, the 66-year-old has built up the “Toyota Times”, hiring Japanese journalists and ramping up coverage of the company to counter what he sees as persistent misinformation and unfair criticism.
Streamed live on the Toyota website, Thursday’s sometimes stilted broadcast underscored how Toyoda has tried to change the conversation around the company his grandfather founded and his apparent frustration at failing to do so.
The carmaker’s approach has not been “understood or appreciated by those who focus on the short term”, Toyoda said in a swipe at critics, before eventually turning to Lexus boss Koji Sato who will take the reins from him from April 1.
Toyoda, who will stay on as chairman, said he felt he had become “part of an older generation” when it comes to the challenge of electrification and connectivity for vehicles.
Both Toyoda and the company have come under fire for what activists and green investors see as a reluctance to embrace battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Toyota says it wants to offer a range of options on the journey to zero emissions and that hybrid technology makes more sense in markets that aren’t ready for costly batteries.
It estimates a billion people don’t have access to electricity to power vehicles, and is committed to selling globally.
“What I find unfortunate is that the media often thrives on conflict, setting BEVs against hybrids, for example,” Toyoda said on the Toyota Times recently. “But the fact is that Toyota operates globally with a full line-up.”
Attempts by Toyota, one of Japan’s largest advertisers, to bypass traditional media are part of a global trend by large corporations, with Elon Musk dismantling Tesla’s PR department in favour of communicating via social media.
Thursday’s broadcast was also awkward by turns: Sato, the incoming CEO, was not introduced until nearly 25 minutes in. A video clip showed him and Toyoda speeding around a race track and laughing as their vehicle accelerated.
After almost an hour of scripted presentations and banter, the Toyota Times host turned to questions from reporters.
While Toyoda himself has become a much more accomplished public speaker over the years, the broadcast came over as “unfriendly and self-indulgent”, said Akio Yamaguchi, who runs crisis communications consultancy AccessEast.
Toyoda has increasingly appeared to eschew traditional media as the company fell out of favour with environmentalists who once lauded its green technology.
He also traced his distrust of the media to the critical coverage he faced during a vehicle recall crisis that began in 2009, just when he was taking over.
At a 2010 congressional hearing in Washington he went through a three-hour grilling by sometimes visibly irritated U.S. lawmakers. He remained stoic throughout, but afterwards broke into tears when speaking to dealers and employees.
He felt an “intense” loneliness and “abandoned” he recalled in a Japanese magazine interview in late 2021.
The Toyota Times also exclusively publishes the closely watched results of the company’s spring wage negotiations with its union.
Other interviewers favoured by Toyoda include Matsuko Deluxe, a TV personality. One well known actor served as editor in chief until an allegation of sexual assault forced the automaker to pull a major advertising campaign.
When a self-driving vehicle hit a pedestrian at the Tokyo Paralympic Games village in 2021, Toyoda took to a live feed on the Instagram page of Toyota Times to explain, where he was interviewed by one of his journalists.
Other reporters were not able to ask questions.
(Reporting by Sam Nussey, Kantaro Komiya, Makiko Yamazaki, Maki Shiraki and Satoshi Sugiyama; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Mark Potter)