Right now corporations and the lawyers who defend them are at a digital crossroads. Just a few years ago, the plaintiffs' bar, along with equally adversarial NGOs and regulators, completely dominated the online space. They wove their viral strategies unchallenged and the result was that, both online and off, they controlled the public narrative on everything from product liability to insider trading.
Today there are signs that the companies hitherto at their mercy are beginning to learn to fight back. But new challenges arise every day. Activist (and even some passive) investors are likewise becoming increasingly prominent and adept in digital communications, adding their voices to the plaintiffs' lawyers and NGOs that have traditionally questioned or attacked corporate policies and practices.
The point is, these diverse challengers are not standing still. They are learning new tricks all the time. Will corporate defendants keep pace? Will they build on what they've achieved over the next few years?
We know of no better example of where we've been and where we are now than Toyota. It is a compelling before-and-after Internet saga.
Back in May of 2010, Toyota was embroiled in a dizzying array of recalls that threatened to severely dent the trust consumers had once reposed in a brand built on reliability. Not surprisingly, plaintiffs' attorneys sniffed blood in the water, turning in droves to the Internet to recruit class action litigants and cement the perception that Toyota had acted irresponsibly. It was proof positive of the digital dominance the plaintiffs' bar held over the defense.
At the height of the recalls, a Google search for the term "Toyota recall" displayed 10 paid advertisements. Toyota itself held the top spot, a notable metric given the reticence that most companies still felt (and continue to feel in many instances) about testing the digital waters during crises.
The problem, however, was that plaintiffs' firms accounted for five of the remaining nine. A search for "Toyota class action" showed that the plaintiffs' edge was even greater. A click on any of those ads provided myriad reasons to sue. Free consultations were just another click away.
When it came to organic (or non-paid) SEO, Toyota ceded the top spot in the Google rankings to Parker Waichman Alonso LLP on searches for "Toyota class action." That was significant as sophisticated Web searchers often skip the paid results and turn straight to the sites that Google recognizes as having the greatest earned affinity. On the world's most popular search engine, it was clear plaintiffs had the upper hand.
In the growing world of Web video, Parker Waichman again led the plaintiffs' charge with a branded YouTube channel featuring numerous videos about the Toyota recalls. Not to be shut out of this all-important messaging venue, Toyota maintained its own branded YouTube channel that was frequently populated with recall-based messages aimed at assuaging consumer fears and wining back a skeptical public. In the blogosphere, Ledger & Associates, the Baumgartner Law Firm, and the Law Offices of James O. Cunningham all maintained blogs that covered the Toyota recall and promoted their lawyers' expertise in litigating such matters--and those were just the first three that a Google search returned. Again, Toyota answered the challenge with its own blog, "Our Point of View." The fatal problem here was that it was only updated once after December 2009, severely limiting its influence.
On Twitter, plaintiffs' firm Arias Ozzello & Gignac LLP had a Toyota Recall presence that boasted more than 800 followers. Toyota had established a branded channel on TweetMeme that enabled consumers to monitor recall-based Twitter conversations. But there was concern among readers as to credibility, since posts were presumably filtered to remove the most negative content.
Fast forward to today.
On the SEO and SEM front, Toyota has made great strides. It has dedicated Google adwords campaigns (SEM) for terms such as "Toyota Recall," "Toyota Problems," and "Toyota Issues." Strategically, Toyota therefore had the good sense to buy up negative terms about itself, not just positive or generic ones.
The need for such foresight cannot be emphasized enough. Enterprise Risk Management officers and lawyers must work in tandem with brand managers to identify risks, and to plan their SEO and SEM strategies around the terms that define those risks, just as Toyota did. Companies have demonstrable capacity on the "positive" marketing side of digital communications. They must be equally proficient on the "negative" crisis side of business.
Toyota has also done a noteworthy job optimizing site content (SEO) to stay atop Google's all-important organic results (four of top ten results and no plaintiffs in the top ten).
With a number of different landing pages to combat negative content, a Pressroom landing page with optimized content, and a Toyota community page that allows people to look up recall information, it's clear that Toyota has grasped the key SEO concept, which is to generate enough continuous content to stay relevant and improve search results.
Toyota now has a strong social media presence including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (including videos of Toyota supervisors talking frankly about the recall), and Digg (featuring Toyota's CEO up-front and personally engaging).
In the social media, Toyota has also come a long way. The company's Twitter and Facebook pages point consumers to a dedicated micro-site addressing the recalls. On Facebook, Toyota built out a recall-related fan page that directs users back to the company's landing page and twitter account. The Facebook fan page also allows people to ask questions--for example, about having their cars checked out for problems--and to fill out surveys.
Some Toyota enthusiasts are posting positive content. The company's loyal fan base has even started a Facebook page, "Defend Toyota." On Twitter, Toyota maintains a number of different handles for each type of recall. For example, @RecalledToyota provides consumers with information about the 2010 brake pedal accelerator problem. However, this primary Twitter presence doesn't accept comments, which still raises concerns about transparency.
While there is always room for enhancements, Toyota has at least leveled the playing field on which it must engage diverse adversaries. That the company was inspired to do so in reaction to recall litigation that collectively totaled some $2 billion in costs does not obviate the effort. If anything, it is all the more notable that Toyota was able to take these giant digital strides forward even while facing such an immense trial by fire in the Court of Public Opinion.
It is also an additionally instructive story for corporations that do not sell products to consumers in the mass market. Toyota's salutary game of digital catch-up should be played by any company that may someday be virally attacked by anyone for anything.
The final lesson is that corporations can therefore surpass what Toyota has accomplished by taking similar strides during peacetime, when it can fortify the digital castle before the barbarians reach the gate. Indeed, the Toyota measures outlined above provide a social and digital media checklist for companies to implement even if nary a single lawsuit is filed against them.
Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications , a crisis and public affairs communications firm. He is the co-author of The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis  and Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference , and writes for Bulletproofblog . Mr. Levick is on the prestigious list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," which is compiled by the NACD and Directorship Magazine. Reach him at email@example.com.