Volkswagen : The internal crisis
Like most consumers, I’ve always held the Volkswagen brand in high regard; a badge of trust and quality. How quickly things change.
Since VW was ousted for cheating emissions tests in the US with its ‘defeat device’ – with half a million vehicles recalled in America and countries such as the UK, Italy, France and Canada opening investigations – it’s safe to say VW’s reputation has been in tatters. And for a company built on trust and dependability, it now faces its biggest challenge yet as it tries to recover.
When the news broke, the then Chief Executive, Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, said VW had “broken the trust of its customers and the public”. But what about the impact on VW’s most valuable stakeholders…its people?
So far, VW has ticked all the right external crisis communications boxes – publicly admitting guilt, removing Winterkorn from the board and committing to an internal investigation to get to the root of the issue. But this scandal runs much deeper than winning back customers. Whilst all stakeholders have a part to play in rebuilding the brand, employees are arguably the most important.
The VW Group has a global workforce of 600,000 employees who will all be impacted by what’s happened. All feeling the stress, worry and insecurity of working for a company about to take a huge financial hit – with fines to the tune of £4.7 billion – make millions of product recalls, freeze production lines and experience a colossal drop in sales.
— Volkswagen (@Volkswagen) September 25, 2015
But it’s not just about job security. Unlike most crises, which are often caused by external impacts on a brand or company, this scandal came from the inside. It’s still unclear as to who knew what within the company but the fact is that a number of VW managers must have played a part.
It’s the beliefs, values and behaviours of a company’s workforce that creates an organisational culture. VW’s culture was that of trust, integrity and reliability, all of which have been jeopardised, putting into question everything staff believe about the brand they represent and ultimately, the people they work with.
So how can VW put things right internally? It should be an integral part of the company’s crisis comms strategy already but it will take time. It’s an exercise in rebuilding trust and revisiting all the things that staff believed about their employer, to rebuild the organisation’s culture.
Five things VW should be doing to rebuild trust internally
The first action for VW should be talking openly with the entire workforce, to make sure everyone knows what’s happened and what will happen next. Talking isn’t about bombarding colleagues with information but creating a space for two-way communication to take place. This may include a number of channels, including enterprise social networks, but VW shouldn’t forget the value and power of talking face-to-face, especially when there’s an element of mistrust. Just like VW publicly admitted guilt, direct face-to-face communication provides the first step in rebuilding ‘human’ trust again.
- Listening carefully
Two-way communications is vital and hopefully VW is giving its employees a chance to express their feelings and concerns – setting up focus groups and internal networks to get a greater understanding of what impact these issues are making on staff and what they need from VW in return. Social media provides an even greater insight into how staff think and feel, monitoring conversations from the outside and measuring the advocacy and sentiment of employees to continually inform the internal comms plan.
- Informing to eliminate uncertainty
VW should be working hard not to leave anyone in the dark. In times of uncertainty and mistrust, a lack of information will add to the internal issue. It should ensure all employees are well informed and know exactly where to find the latest information, where they can talk and where discussions are taking place. It’s about being transparent and honest, and communicating every decision, no matter how difficult, as soon as possible.
- Giving ambassadors the tools to communicate
Whilst a crisis like this could very well split the workforce beyond repair, it’s also important to remember that with a culture as powerful as VW’s, people will want to re-group to turn things around for the brand they have invested in. It’s likely that the majority of its people will feel the same and want to collectively turn the ship around. A key factor in VW’s communications should be identifying its internal influencers and ambassadors and equipping them with the tools to tell their story and discuss the brand’s recovery in the most genuine and personal way, from the inside out.
- Revisiting its values
If VW listens to its teams effectively, it should be able to draw an accurate picture of what’s changed culturally. Eventually, it should think about how it can go back to what mattered most to its workforce and rebuild the values everyone believed in.