A new PR disaster for Volkswagen – how was their crisis management?
May 22, 2020

Just when the emissions testing controversy seemed to have died down Volkswagen has been bit with a new scandal – and a PR disaster. Their crisis communications capability has once again been put to the test.

We’re getting more requests for crisis media training courses and our short, sharp, results-orientated virtual crisis communications courses have been in particular demand recently.

This time the German car maker is in trouble because of an advertisement for a new model from its popular Golf range which shows an oversized hand pushing a tiny man along the street, away from the new car and into a cafe.

The problem? The hand is white and the man is dark-skinned. Oh, and the café appears to be called Le Petit Colon, a reference to colonies, as well as to Christopher Columbus’ name in Spanish, many commentators have pointed out. The letters that appear on the screen afterward this sequence, it’s claimed, spell out a racist insult in German. “I could throw up,” one Twitter user commented.

Media coverage is naturally making reference to other examples of bad taste and racism associated with Volkswagen. Journalists love a pattern or trend as much as their audiences.
Having made this gaff how well did Volkswagen do to handle and minimise it?

The company issued a comment quickly. Speed, during a crisis situation, be it bad taste in advertising, an explosion, a data breach or a contamination, is essential. We used to talk about the golden hour in crisis communications.

This was the vital 60 minutes or so after a crisis has gone live when the organisation concerned can either get on top of the situation and release their comment, thereby being a good position to handle it well. Or, on the other hand, you can be a bit slow off the mark, fumble it and spend the next few days and even weeks on the back foot, trying to react and fight fires. These days that 60 minutes is down to around 10 or less thanks to the growth of social media and faster moving news cycles.

You also need to ensure that if the mistake really is yours you apologise unreservedly and that you use natural, punchy language to do so. Mealy mouthed, corporate-speak and clever little qualifications to any comment just won’t cut it. We once worked with a company that was proposing to issue a statement to the effect that it was sorry “if clients felt that they hadn’t been treated fairly.” We flagged up the words “if” and “felt”. It was undeniable that those clients hadn’t been treated fairly, we pointed out. This more honest approach that we suggested they use instead meant that the story went away very quickly.

“We understand the public outrage at this, because we’re horrified too,” said Volkswagen’s brand board member Jürgen Stackmann and its group head of diversity Elke Heitmüller through the company’s social media outlets. “It is an insult to every decent person. We’re ashamed of it and cannot explain how it came about. We apologise in particular to those who feel personally hurt by the racist content.”

This apology is full and heartfelt. It’s actually quite difficult to go over the top in these situations. The more profoundly and sincerely sorry you show yourself to be the less likely anyone is to have another go at you.

The company goes on to say that it’s carrying out an investigation into how the film came to be made and published. Announcing that you’re holding an investigation is always a good idea. It shows that you’re doing something, that you’re taking the situation seriously and it’s the natural thing to do.

It sounds logical and sensible. But it has another advantage, though, in corporate communications terms. It means that if you’re asked further questions about details of the incident you can explain in many situations quite honestly and sensibly that it’s just too early to say. You’ll have to wait until the investigation reports. If you can find an independent body to manage it then this will add to your credibility.

As well as identifying the right message and releasing it quickly, coordinating the message is also essential, as we explained in our crisis communications workshops. You need to make sure that you’re the only one talking about this, if possible. That means your suppliers, your different offices around the world or subsidiaries are either not saying anything or are at least singing off the same hymn sheet.

In this case, Volkswagen’s workers’ representative and supervisory board member Bernd Osterloh, issued a comment alongside the company’s official statement. “The incident must be fully investigated,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “The works council will not allow the responsibility for this incident to be permanently shifted down from top management.”

It’s an understandable sentiment but it would be better coordinated through the company’s corporate communications office. Coordinating the message is something that we look at closely during our crisis communications courses because it’s so important.

Volkswagen deserves an eight out of ten here and the company will be hoping that this story runs out of fuel pretty quickly.

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