WASHINGTON — How rattled are Toyota dealers about the company's problems? Some dealerships nearly hired the same crisis public relations firm that handled the travails of socialite Paris Hilton, singer Chris Brown and a company that California called the state's worst inland polluter.
With Toyota waging a furious lobbying and advertising battle to protect its name following the recall of 8.5 million vehicles, many of its 1,200 dealers are taking matters into their own hands. A group in Southern California almost retained the PR firm Sitrick and Co. of Los Angeles.
Insiders said the idea was nixed after Toyota officials said the company should speak with one voice — theirs.
Dozens of dealers will lobby members of Congress this week as two House oversight committees hold hearings. Some dealers organized their own advertising campaigns; many are nervous and angry.
"As we get into the media circus and the congressional panels which may stir things up again, they're so afraid this is going to terrify customers and they just want to get their story out," said Cody Lusk, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association.
The behind-the-scenes activities highlight dealers' worries about a crisis that has caused Toyota sales to plummet, and about a corporate response that some of them consider slow-footed and inadequate.
It also underscores their willingness to flex their muscle on Capitol Hill, where dealers have clout in every congressional district as major employers and pillars of the tax base and community.
Often encouraged and reimbursed by manufacturers, scores of dealers lobbied in recent months when Congress provided loans to struggling Chrysler and General Motors, and enacted the Cash for Clunkers program giving buyers money for trading gas guzzlers for more fuel efficient models.
"An overwhelming unified front is surely going to stir positive attention, and send a strong message of significance, commitment and support to our members of Congress," Tammy Darvish, vice president of four Toyota dealerships around Washington wrote Friday in an e-mail urging dealers to lobby Congress this week. "Every Toyota dealer is in a position to choose to either be a part of something or subject to it."
Among the restive dealers is Jack Fitzgerald, who owns Toyota dealerships in Gaithersburg, Md., and Chambersburg, Pa. He produced a 60-second commercial for television and his Web site in which he reassures customers, "Your car is safe to drive. Toyota says so. And your car is not going to depreciate. Jack says so."
A dealer for 44 years, Fitzgerald said he decided to run his own ads because he was unhappy with Toyota's response.
"They're so late doing it," he said of Toyota's ads addressing the recalls. "They should have been doing this two months ago. I'm doing it because they weren't doing anything."
Similar thinking spurred about 50 Toyota dealers in the Los Angeles area recently to reach out to Sitrick and Co. That firm is known for helping troubled celebrities and beleaguered companies put the best face on dire situations, including Greka Oil & Gas Co., whose California facilities have been plagued by oil spills and gas leaks.
In the end, the Southern California Toyota dealers decided against retaining Sitrick because they were satisfied with Toyota's public relations campaign, said Roger Hogan, a leader among the dealers.
"We didn't really have any different message than Toyota," Hogan said. "We decided to stand down and hold pat with Toyota's word out there."
Insiders tell a different story consistent with a frequent criticism of Toyota's handling of the recalls: Its Japan headquarters controls information, decision-making and operations too tightly.
The dealers decided against hiring Sitrick after Toyota told them at the last minute that it preferred to handle the public relations effort, said one executive, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Toyota dealer John Symes from Pasadena, Calif., cited the same message Toyota officials delivered at a recent dealers convention in Orlando, Fla., saying the company should control the response.
Hogan said Toyota officials never pressured him to not retain Sitrick. Michael Sitrick, chairman and chief executive of the firm bearing his name, said his arrangement with the dealers was being finalized when things changed.
"I was told Toyota and the dealers felt since they would essentially be delivering the same message, that Toyota Corp. should handle all communications," Sitrick said.
Toyota spokeswoman Martha Voss said Toyota headquarters did not direct the dealers' decision. Officials in the company's Washington office praised dealers for wanting to persuade Congress and customers that Toyotas are safe.
"I think the dealer voices can be very effective because of the role they play in their communities," said Josephine Cooper, who heads the company's Washington office and did not rule out reimbursing the expenses of dealers who lobby this week.
Even in good times, manufacturers and dealers squabble over whether particular models are strong products or the adequacy of financing that factories offer dealers for their inventories. Toyota's problems have given the company and its dealers a common interest: quickly restoring faith in the brand so sales will recover, and avoiding as much bad publicity as possible.
"They are aligned because they have a common opponent," said Gerald C. Meyers, a professor at the University of Michigan business school and former auto executive. "And now that's Washington."
On the Web:
Ad on recalls by Toyota dealer in Maryland and Pennsylvania: tinyurl.com/yecld5j