Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda (center) and Toyota Motor North America CEO Yoshimi Inaba (right) prepare to testify at a House committee hearing in 2010.
Despite the recalls, Toyota this year boasts several top safety picks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and last year announced a major investment in an auto safety research center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“We are credible to take a higher profile role around debates of safety issues,” Ciccone said. “In those areas where we have the credibility, we want to be seen as leaders in the public policy space.”
Not everyone is convinced.
Joan Claybrook, a former National Highway Traffic Safety administrator and one-time head of Public Citizen, said skepticism remains about how the company handled the sudden-acceleration recalls.
“Twice, Toyota got the highest fine ever from the Department of Transportation, which felt the company had not been honest with them,” Claybrook said. As a result, Ciccone “has some heavy lifting to do to repair Toyota’s reputation,” she said.
Ciccone acknowledged there were issues with the company’s vehicle floor mats that pinned down accelerators, but he said there were no electronic problems. When he met with the company’s CEO, Akio Toyoda, the recall obviously came up, he said.
“This experience only reinforces our primary focus, which is: always make better cars,” Ciccone said. “In terms of the public policy space, part of our vision is that there will be much more interaction between leaders in our company and leaders in government. In the past, we may have relied more on our lobbyists to interface with government.”
Ciccone is something of an unknown commodity in K Street and Capitol Hill circles. He is not yet registered to lobby for Toyota, according to filings with Congress, but a spokesman for the carmaker said Ciccone would file soon. He was previously registered with Eastman Kodak, where he worked for more than two decades. Unlike his predecessor at Toyota, a folksy North Carolinian who recently won the Bryce Harlow Business-Government Relations Award from her lobbyist peers, even Ciccone’s fans concede that he is not a typical K Streeter.
Ciccone started his career as a lobbyist in New York and spent 24 years with Kodak, where he ultimately was responsible for worldwide government affairs.
“Steve understands Washington but is not the quintessential Washington insider lobbyist,” said Doug Pinkham, who heads the Public Affairs Council and has known Ciccone for more than a decade.
Need proof? Ciccone’s ponytail.
“He has a very international flavor to his style,” Pinkham said. “He’s the kind of person that if you read some really off-the-wall business or philosophical book, he’s already read it.”
Pinkham called Ciccone, who previously chaired the council’s international network, the “perfect” fit for Toyota. “Certainly after you’ve faced a crisis, once it’s died down a bit, you need to use that lesson to engage and understand your political risks and opportunities,” he added.
In addition to the big-picture outreach to the Hill, under Ciccone’s direction, Toyota will lobby specifically on energy, environmental and trade issues.