When Schoolwork Gets Real

How college students partnered with Toyota to help address a crisis

June 18, 2019
It’s five days before graduation and Dr. LaShonda Eaddy’s crisis management class is nervous.

The group of ten college students walk into Toyota’s North American Headquarters in Plano, filing one by one into an auditorium where they would be the presenters.

School work had turned into a real-life shark tank.
Starting Their Impossible -- Toyota advisors Tania Saldana, advanced technology communications manager (far left) and Lee Smith, quality compliance field information manager (far right), welcomed SMU crisis management students to TMNA HQ last month. The students brainstormed community outreach plans for the Takata airbag crisis. 

The Challenge

The challenge started with a question: How can Toyota reach drivers with defective Takata airbags?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety roughly 41.6 million vehicles equipped with 56 million defective Takata air bags are under recall. Nineteen automakers are involved. After years of extensive owner outreach, Toyota was looking for new ideas.

“We asked ourselves, how can we step outside of the box and find innovative ways to reach people who haven’t brought in their vehicles for repair,” says Advanced Technology Communications Manager Tania Saldana.

Saldana was key in organizing a partnership with Dr. Eaddy’s crisis management class at Southern Methodist University, located in Dallas.

The class was deep into established curriculum, but this opportunity was just too good to pass up.

“They were excited about the opportunity, but I think they were also a little bit stressed,” Eaddy says, “We really had to change gears about halfway through the semester.”

Don't Tell Us, Show Us

The students split into three groups, knowing that in just eight weeks, they’d have to present a 360-degree Takata outreach plan to Toyota executives, including Chief Quality Officer & Executive Vice President Chris Nielsen and Quality Vice President Tom Trisdale.

“We encouraged them to not just tell us what to do, but show us,” Saldana says. “Let us see it for ourselves.”

Toyota team members Lee Smith (Quality) and Tania Saldana (Corporate Communications) served as weekly advisers for the teams, and each group had a different demographic to strategize around.

In the end, it was the group targeting Dallas-Fort Worth Hispanics that stood out the most.

“They started big picture, talking about their plan,” Saldana says. “But most impressive was how directly they addressed their target audience.”

This group did a deep dive on the 2.3 million Hispanics living in the DFW area.

Family was at the center of their strategy – from the perspectives of a full-time student, a working mother, and a small business owner.

“We were most impressed with the fact the students came up with new creative,” Saldana says.

The team imagined grocery cart and gas station ads, outlined a detailed social media campaign,  and planned for family-friendly outreach at soccer tournaments and Latino music festivals.

“When you have a problem and the same people are working on it, you’re not looking at it with fresh eyes after a while,” Saldana says. “How many students can say, I worked with a global company on a real crisis?”
Head of the Class -- Chief Quality Officer & Executive Vice President Chris Nielsen congratulates the winning team of SMU students. The team focused on outreach to Hispanic communities. 

This is Our Commitment 

On presentation day, nerves turned to satisfied smiles.

The students soaked in the chance to showcase their work to top Toyota executives, agreeing it was the perfect way to end their time at SMU.

“This wasn’t the only thing they were facing that week,” Saldana says, “But they just knocked it out of the park.”
Now it’s up to the creative minds at Toyota to sort through the ideas and decide what can be taken to market.

With millions of recalled airbags still on the road, the hope is that this project could help inspire the next new strategy in outreach.  

Tireless work on the problem will continue to help raise awareness and keep customers safe.

“At the end of the day, this is our commitment,” Saldana says, “It’s the right thing to do.”

By Jenny Krueger 

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