I am one of the Volk – the millions of consumers who are impacted by the Volkwagen scandal. Before buying my 2011 diesel Jetta, I read reviews and talked to an engineer friend, looking for assurance that this car would be good on gas mileage and emissions (my other car is a Prius). As a consumer, I am waiting to see how the German automaker is going to make this right. As a crisis communications professional, I am shaking my head as I watch Volkswagen’s management make a bad situation worse.
When news first broke that the automaker had installed software designed to defeat emissions testing equipment, I wondered if my car was on the list. Then Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn, while stating that he did not know of the deception, accepted blame for it and vowed the company would cooperate fully. Smart move. Accept responsibility, promise transparency and show the public that you intend to fix the problem. Failure to do otherwise could further damage whatever shreds of trust remained between manufacturer and consumer. But then, as my grandmother would say in Yiddish, things at VW went fershlinga.
Newly appointed CEO Mathias Muller told the German press that the source of the problem was isolated to a small group of engineers. It was a claim that Volkswagen’s U.S. CEO Michael Horn repeated before the House Committee on Energy and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Regulations. Congress didn’t believe Horn. Nor did anyone else.
It is impossible for an outsider to know what is going on inside Volkswagen. But having lived through high profile crises, I can imagine the scene. Lawyers, board members, government regulators and law enforcement officials are all asking for information. The U.S. Department of Justice publicly put the company on notice that a task force is presenting evidence to a federal grand jury in Detroit. It is hard to see clearly under intense pressure.
For what it’s worth, here is my advice:
- Don’t pass the buck: It is highly likely that you don’t have all the facts, because you haven’t had the time to conduct a forensic audit. In such a case, the best course of action is to explain that the matter is under review. Whenever executives decide to throw their subordinates under a bus before all of the facts are determined, they destroy any loyalty the employees may have towards the company. Your corporate atmosphere becomes toxic. Employees who may be culpable of malfeasance will quickly decide to get ahead of their problems and convert into whistleblowers.
- Take ownership quickly – The public doesn’t expect a CEO to know all of the answers, but they expect him or her to lead.
- Communicate to the field – Your employees and dealerships are your company’s ambassadors. Don’t let them, or consumers, rely on the media for information. We are now almost a month into this crisis and Volkwagen still has not created a place for consumers to obtain information on its corporate web page. I did receive a letter acknowledging the problem and reassuring me that something would be done. Yet the manager of my local dealer seemed uncomfortable with my questions when I called, acting like he was as perplexed by the situation as I was. The longer a company waits to respond in a time of crisis, the more public trust they lose.
- Project into the future – An automobile is a major purchase for most families. So reassure me that you understand the sacrifice I went through to buy your brand. Acknowledge my frustration and tell me that you are working on a remedy. Give me some kind of timeline. And for Pete’s sake, control your own narrative.
Will Rogers once said: “the American people are very generous and will forgive almost any weakness with the possible exception of stupidity.” So don’t be stupid, Volkswagen. The people who bought your cars need to know what you are doing as you figure out how you will fix this problem. The longer you wait, the more Volk you will lose.