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16 Oct 2015

VW: Tackling the external crisis

Posted on October 16, 2015 by

In our last blog, we advised how Volkswagen could fully engage with its workforce, following the recent emissions scandal. In this post, I’ll be looking at how well it did at communicating with external audiences and what it might mean for the industry.

Before CEO Martin Winterkorn fell on his sword in September, he released a public apology, admitting to a “breaking of trust.” It wasn’t long after this that he announced his resignation in a full statement which included: “The process of clarification and transparency must continue. This is the only way to win back trust.”

It’s no secret that VW is a trusted and well-respected brand, so a scandal like this, as significant as it is, is not going to mean the end for the company. But as Winterkorn said, there is a substantial job to do, in terms of rebuilding trust and getting customers back onside.

Last weekend the company ran a series of print adverts in the national papers, beginning the process of rebuilding consumer trust. The ads were titled “We have broken the most important part in our vehicles: trust” and made a bold promise to contact every one of its customers affected. This bold approach demonstrates that the car maker is taking action and aiming to put the matter right.

Also, when questioned about when the recall will be complete, instead of setting an unachievable target, such as the end of the year, the UK director Alex Smith stated the company was continuing to make it an upmost priority, which is really all it can do. If VW was to give a date, and then miss it, the company would only lose further customer trust. The company has clearly recognised it needs to manage customer expectations, instead of promising something it can’t deliver.

The company has outlined its plans for the future. It has formed a new Volkswagen Brand Board of Management, which has set out a new approach and strategy, including the development of an electric car. This quick turnaround from bad news to good has reminded people of VW’s capabilities and that there is a positive future for the brand.

The main thing that has been absent from VW’s reaction to this issue throughout the scandal is a clear leader: a face that can front the company when it is most in need. The reasons why Winterkorn stepped down are understandable, but there has been no evidence of a new leader, something the company, and its customers, need to see.

No crisis communications strategy is perfect. In fact, if it was, you probably wouldn’t have even heard about it, but the way VW has dealt with the scandal is commendable. It will be interesting to see if it is the only organisation in the automotive industry suffering from this crisis over the coming months.

Given the increasing pressures around limiting engine emissions, it’s likely that this will be a wider issue across the industry.

The current perceptions around car companies and diesel emissions have already raised some concerns among environmentally-conscious consumers, so should there be any wider industry crisis around cheating emissions tests, it could cause even more unrest among car buyers.

All car manufacturers need to be aware that when it comes to consumer trust, perception is reality as far as they are concerned. If people think all diesel cars emit excessive fumes, they might be less likely to buy cars with diesel engines.

More importantly, consumers need to trust what manufacturers and dealers say in their brochures and their advertising. If that trust breaks down over one false fact, repairing the damage could prove time-consuming and expensive.

Tweets from @AberfieldPR

It wasn't just Harry who went rogue today. Here's our MD looking very suspicious #fortheloveofthejob pic.twitter.com/rK5ejcD8T2

4:15 PM — 22 Mar 17

Great day @railwaymuseum with @harrylooknorth & @BBCLookNorth tune in at 6.30pm to find out more! #GoneRogue pic.twitter.com/6rOXQV8kvM

4:10 PM — 22 Mar 17

So true @Gillmo the brain of 2017 just has to hold more and multi-task harder! @therealprmoment

2:46 PM — 22 Mar 17

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