“It takes a whole life to build a reputation. It takes a moment to destroy it”.
The concise comment by Gianni Puglisi, IULM’s dean, summarizes perfectly the media storm fallen on the automotive industry Volkswagen, accused by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of having adulterated data regarding its diesel cars’ emissions.
DieselGate, as it was immediately renamed the scandal, is spreading like wildfire, causing serious economical, judiciary and branding problems to the German enterprise. Numbers count more than a blue streak: 11 million vehicles involved, more than 15 billion euro of capitalization fired because of the title collapse at the Stock Market, a monster fine (probably about 18 billion dollar) arriving from U.S government. A framework able to make very nervous even the most experienced manager, with the addition of a crack in the brand’s reliability, which risks to acquire a much greater size than the financial losses.
Puglisi, interviewed by Affaritaliani.it, stated it very clearly: “Volkswagen managed to nullify a solid, centuries-old reputation, synonymous of credibility, guarantee and security. Now the only way for them to go back to the top is rolling up their sleeves and diving into work as they were beginners”.
However, Volkswagen has done, so far, the minimum required for what concerns public relations. Florian Silnicki, crisis communications specialist and founder of LaFrenchCom agency, analyzed, on the French information website Latribune.fr, all the mistakes made by the German brand in the crisis management.
In crisis communication, the first hours since the storm boost are essential. It is necessary to communicate quickly and efficiently through all the official brand channels in order to drive the information that reach journalists and public, reduce rampant leaks and limit image damages as much as possible. Volkswagen has immediately admitted its responsibilities, but until Wednesday 23rd September, after four days since the beginning of the crisis, the corporation had not published any statement of justification or explanation about the situation neither on the Volkswagen website nor on its official Facebook and Twitter profiles. Instead, a right communication on social media is the best move for a damage containment (we had already spoken about that in this post).
Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen CEO, admitted that 11 million vehicles were involved in the environmental fraud, presenting his resignation. A textbook gambit, but tardive. Waiting for claiming his resignation, Winterkorn sowed doubts about his and Volkswagen’s wish to admit their responsibilities, causing a serious image damage. And his video-message wasn’t much better: ambiguous, general, without any concrete and objective information, nor reference to accountability for the processes examined by EPA.
Communicators left on the bench
Because of the gravity of accusations in its charge and the opening of prosecutions in many countries, Volkswagen preferred to entrust its lawyers for communication rather than the PR department. The first ones have given to the PR department very strict margins of action, following obsolete corporate communication procedures. Thunderous silence, awkward denials, incapacity of providing simple information about already verified news, falsely comforting messages and arrogance are all behaviors destined to worsen the situation rather than improve it.
Now, the PR department will have the titanic task to comfort public opinion and rebuild the reputation that Volkswagen had created after decades of successes before annihilating it in a few days, a mistake after another. And the best way to do it, the cheapest and the most effective one, it’s to tell the truth.
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