Last Wednesday was the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is when sinners confess their transgressions and promise to repent. Its ancient traditions are somewhat similar to crisis management in public relations.
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned on Yom Kippur after eight years as head of the world’s largest auto manufacturer, one day after admitting that 11 million Volkswagens were built with software that falsify official emissions tests. Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed the car company had deliberately put software in diesel cars that turned emissions control systems off when the car isn’t undergoing inspections. Volkswagen now faces billions of dollars in fines and massive numbers of class-action lawsuits. And while he said he personally did not know about the software, Winterkorn declared this “manipulation” must never happen again, and promised transparency and speed in addressing the issue. Meanwhile, VW stock value has dropped from $167 to $115 a share in just the past week.
That same Wednesday, the news team WGN-TV in Chicago found itself atoning. During its 9 p.m. newscast Tuesday, they aired a story about Yom Kippur, but the graphic over the anchorman’s shoulder was a yellow Star of David with the word “Jude” imprinted on it; it was the symbol sewn onto the clothing of Jews by the Nazis in Germany. The station’s general manager and news director issued an apology, saying, “Regrettably, we failed to recognize that the artwork we chose to accompany the story contained an offensive symbol. This was an unfortunate mistake. Ignorance is not an excuse. We are extremely embarrassed and we deeply apologize…” One might conclude that some producer lacked historical perspective and didn’t know the symbol was borne from hatred. It’s why you must have good general knowledge of history, pop culture and current events when you’re creating content for audiences.
Public offenses often become PR crises, large and small. The first step to winning back trust is through acknowledgement and apology. Of course, though atonement starts with “I’m sorry,” it doesn’t work unless the offenders stop sinning. Your thoughts?