WASHINGTON — In public, Toyota is running apologetic TV ads and vowing to win back customers' trust. Behind the scenes, the besieged automaker is trying to learn all it can about congressional investigations, maybe even steer them if it can.
It's part of an all-out drive by the world's biggest auto manufacturer to redeem its once unassailable brand, which was hit anew Tuesday as Toyota's global recall ballooned to 8.5 million cars and trucks. The day's safety recall of 440,000 of its flagship Prius and other hybrids, plus a Tokyo news conference where the company's president read a statement in English pledging to "regain the confidence of our customers," underscored a determination to keep buyers' faith from sinking to unrecoverable depths.
In Washington, facing congressional inquiries and government investigations, Toyota through its lawyers and lobbyists is working to salvage its reputation. The confidential strategy includes efforts to sway hearings on Capitol Hill and is based on experiences by companies that have survived similar consumer and political crises — and those that haven't.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said Toyota representatives visited his offices.
"They're probing us. 'What are you going to ask us, where are you going with this whole thing?' " said Stupak, chairman of a House subcommittee looking into Toyota's problems.
Toyota, which reported spending more than $4 million on lobbying last year, has hired additional lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts to "work with regulators and lawmakers collaboratively towards a successful recall effort," spokeswoman Cindy Knight said in an e-mail.
Rough headlines continued:
State Farm, the largest U.S. auto insurer, said it had informed federal regulators late in 2007 about growing reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyotas. That disclosure raised new questions about whether the government missed clues about problems. Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Stupak wrote insurance executives seeking information on any warnings they may have provided the government about unintended acceleration in Toyotas.
Congressional investigators cited growing evidence that not all the causes of Toyota's acceleration problems have been identified.
A staff memo from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which had planned an oversight hearing today, said there was substantial evidence that remedies such as redesigned floor mats have failed to solve problems. The hearing was postponed until Feb. 24 because of snow.
Federal safety officials said they were examining complaints from Corolla owners about steering problems.
Toyota faces at least two congressional hearings besides Stupak's, including the one delayed by snow. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and a Toyota supporter, said his panel will hold a hearing March 2 after the two by the House.
Their focus: floor mats that get caught under accelerators, sticky gas pedals and brake problems, and what the company and federal regulators knew about them.
Professionals who have waged major damage-control struggles say the best strategy for Toyota mixes apology, openness, details about a specific fix — plus a little help from friends on Capitol Hill.
In recent days, Toyota has run ads about its dedication to safety and its customers. Toyota is expected to turn for help to lawmakers from states with Toyota plants or offices. Republicans are considered likely to back the company, whose workers are not unionized.
Toyota has been encouraging dealers to contact local members of Congress, according to Bailey Wood, spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association. About 60 of the 1,200 U.S. Toyota dealers planned to visit Washington this week, weather permitting, said Cody Lusk, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association. Their message: Toyota employs 34,000 people in the United States and accounts for 164,000 other jobs at dealerships and parts suppliers.
"They provide a lot of jobs, a lot of the tax base, and they want members to know," Lusk said.
Toyota also flew 23 workers from plants around the nation to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers' staffs, emphasizing that the people who make the parts and build the vehicles care about quality.
Friendly legislators can limit the duration of congressional hearings and ask favorable questions that would give Toyota officials a chance to tell their side of the story. Their goal would compress unfavorable news stories about the hearings to as few days as possible, while making sure the company avoids being confrontational.