Last week, Public Relations Nation focused on PR’s history as expressed in the new timeline produced by the Museum of Public Relations and Hofstra University. PR history is being written all the time, especially chapters focused on crisis communication. Each time a company, individual or institution gets into trouble, another case study develops for PR students and, later, historians to analyze. Dozens of publications and textbooks examine crisis PR, among them Eric Dezenhall’s “Damage Control” and Steve Adubato’s “What Were They Thinking?”
So indeed, what were they thinking at Volkswagen when its leadership made a deliberate decision to deceive consumers and regulators all over the world? In this week’s New York Times, “Explaining Volkswagen’s Emissions Scandal” tells us how “Volkswagen has admitted that 11 million of its vehicles were equipped with software that was used to cheat on emissions tests. The company is now contending with the fallout.” The article goes on to describe that “Volkswagen has recently reported record losses, as the company’s value has plummeted since the scandal broke…Internally, the company has shaken up its leadership. Its chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, as well as the head of its American operations have stepped down, and the company suspended several high-ranking executives. Volkswagen has also been facing mounting legal battles (and) regulators across the globe have been conducting their own investigations.”
VW began its damage control with apologies, running an ad last November saying, “We’re working to make things right.” Executive Herbert Diess wrote in January, “We disappointed our customers and the American people, for which I am truly sorry…We at Volkswagen are disappointed that this could happen within the company we love. I assure you we are doing everything we can to make things right.” CEO Matthias Müller told the press last week that he “personally apologize(d) to President Obama for our behavior.”
It’s fascinating to see VW struggle to fix its cars, its company and its image as this scandal unfolds. It’s another chapter for the PR history books and it’s being written as we watch. Apologies aside, what should Volkswagen do next? Your thoughts?