Perspectives on the Volkswagen diesel scandal

Evaluating Volkswagen’s crisis communications

By Joy Landry

My colleagues at the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency have watched the Volkswagen emissions scandal unfold with great interest. In late 2015, the automobile manufacturer was caught purposely manipulating its cars’ software in order to avoid strict emissions control requirements, both in the United States and in Europe. Not just a few vehicles. Try 11 million vehicles.

Joy Landry is a public relations specialist at the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency.

Joy Landry is a public relations specialist at the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency.

In addition to its brazen disregard for air quality, VW has backed itself into a colossal public relations nightmare. According to a USA Today report, VW’s attempt to clean up its mess will cost the company a staggering $18 billion. That does not include the loss of future sales and significant brand damage caused by the negative press coverage.

VW initially responded by issuing an apology via full-page advertisements in 30 newspapers throughout the United States. “We’re working to make things right,” the company stated. In an effort to placate existing VW owners who learned the resale value of their cars had depreciated almost overnight, VW offered $500 VISA gift cards.

Six litigious months later, VW has reached a settlement in federal court to either repair or buy back approximately one half million diesel cars that are equipped with the illegal emissions software. Yet to be determined are what fines VW will face and how customers will be compensated. Only time will reveal the full financial and public relations impact on Volkswagen.

I cannot help but think of another company that incurred a significant environmental accident and subsequent public relation disaster, both having with long-term impacts: Exxon.

So, as PR professionals, you be the judge. Do you feel that Volkswagen’s crisis communications response to its emissions cheating scandal has been effective?

An outraged owner

By Kathleen Williams

I bought a VW Jetta TDI in 2014. The primary selling point? A fuel-efficient diesel engine. I was just starting my job in Clermont County, and had a longish commute. I wanted a car that got good mileage.

Kathleen Williams is the public information officer for Clermont County.

Kathleen Williams is the public information officer for Clermont County.

When the emissions scandal began to unfold, I was furious, shocked, and disappointed. I think what distinguishes this corporate scandal from so many others – including BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, GM’s ignition switch recalls, and the Takata airbag recalls – is that VW’s involved outright deception from the get-go. The emissions flaw wasn’t caused by a manufacturing glitch, or a safety oversight, or human frailty. It was a lie sanctioned by VW’s corporate suite. (Not to minimize these other examples – they all have led to loss of life, which the emissions scandal has not.)

I am sure I am not alone in saying that I will never buy another Volkswagen. Frankly, I don’t know how VW wins back the trust of consumers. Who would want to buy a car from a company that went to all the trouble of designing software to trick emissions testing -- and then lied to customers about how environmentally friendly its cars were?

To me, this reinforces yet again how important credibility is to an organization – and once it’s gone, how hard it is to reclaim. We won't know for a good long time whether VW can repair this damage to its reputation, especially in the United States. Ultimately, the cost of this cheating will be far more than the extra sales VW may have earned by touting its "clean diesel."