Volkswagen: PR Crisis Could Reap Millions of Positive Customer Relationship Opportunities

As a fan of building beautiful brands that customers love it is disheartening to read and see so much in the media about how Volkswagen can seemingly go from being the automotive, marketing, design, engineering, lifestyle, advertising and creative industries commentators’ darling, to the blackest of arch villains at the strokes of a few thousand media and social media keys.

Well now, why not just hold up on those diesel horses a minute. Stand back you Folks with Ropes and let’s understand the who why what where when how of this situation before you slip the noose over the iconic auto maker’s business and all that entails for the thousands of innocent people Volkswagen employs directly and indirectly around the globe. Because we can be sure that they knew nothing about little black boxes of tricky-slicky software.

As any professional PR and brand director will know, handled correctly even the most serious business crisis is, after all, a difficult but very real opportunity to implement good crisis management strategies to get closer to your customers, brand fans and stakeholders – and for everyone to come out stronger together on the other side of “the moment”. And that is a feeling worth striving for.

Democracy and justice are about understanding the facts of what went wrong and fixing it, anything else is just opportunism. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we were all perfect, all of the time? Well no, actually.

What VW needs to get out into the public domain, now, is all of the facts. The top brass at the German Stock Exchange suggested on a BBC Radio4 News programme last week that this happening could be limited to the knowledge of a ‘few software engineers’ – as he put it (while also getting in a plug for savvy investors to buy now while the share price is 38% down!). Well I’m not sure about his level of insider knowledge at VW but whatever the truth, it amazes me that there is such a level of self-righteous pre-judgement for this automotive lifestyle brand that has brought so much pleasure into millions of people’s lives, from world champion racers, to surfers, to grandmas – and probably surfing grandmas of racing drivers too.

It does not however amaze me that the ambulance chasing vultures are greedily sniffing around the Euro7.3billion already immediately set aside by VW senior management to start to deal with the customer and regulator fall out that will ensue, regardless of who is finally held to account. (You can already hear the “have you been mis-sold a VW” radio adverts and annoying automated phone calls for years to come can’t you?). In another subliminal advert earlier this week BBC Radio4 interviewed a gleeful senior UK Legal Eagle giggling her way through discussions of class actions and other angles on claims that could be brought to bear on VW from just about every quarter.

But here’s the crucial point: VW are not in denial, they are dealing with it. And immediate admission of the wrongdoing is how you start to rebuild trust. Why not compare and contrast the damage done by some banks to the whole global economy and then compare and contrast those held to account in that multi-$Trillion disaster. Yes, a bad thing has happened in the automotive world. Yes, a longstanding brand trust has been broken. However, I believe the strength of VW’s relationship with its millions of current and historic customers will help it to deal with this calmly – if the media and commentator frenzy allows it to happen in a logical and Germanically efficient way. In the overall scheme of recent bad things happening on the macro economic, humanitarian and non-linear warfare fronts VW’s ‘crime’ is small beer. No one has died, no one is hungry, no one is in danger, and no one has lost part of their country to a despot.

The VW Global CEO has fallen upon his sword fairly swiftly but the smell of blood seems to be firmly in some of the media’s nostrils (they are apparently now going after German government officials heads for this, and who knows, you might be next, because you must have known).

Will they attempt to hound a good business out of business or weaken it to add fuel to the economic misery of yet more good men and women and their families around the world as a result? Let’s hope not. It is hugely ironic that a proportion of the very people in a position to do something positively influential in a crisis like this one are tempted otherwise.

Democracy and justice are about understanding the facts of what went wrong and fixing it, anything else is opportunism. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we were all perfect, all of the time? Well no, actually.

You would never have the opportunity to grow by putting wrongs and mistakes right. That’s as true on an individual relationship level as it is for corporate brands and their relationships with the people who gave them everything they needed to become such a brand, including their trust.

Indulge yourself and for a moment imagine an alternative outcome: the whole media working to help VW customers with a calm explanation of what went wrong and assisting in the recall and repair of affected vehicles. Imagine fair compensation paid without fuss from Volkswagen to their customers (without fat cat middle-fees creamed off to legal firms); swift investigation, isolation and punishment of the guilty; payment of regulatory fines; replacement of vehicles or systems – and everyone getting on with the good life…

What a quaintly mad little notion, that common sense should prevail for the common good; that a brand would be allowed to apologise for its wrongdoing, to speed the process of recompense; and immediately start to rebuild the long-held trust from its millions of customers. In reality, when you consider what is at stake, it is not such a mad idea at all.

Reputation rebuilding for VW will of course take a lot of hard work. No flashy social or other media campaign alone will fix this. It will be about VW people on the ground looking after each customer, one-by-one. It always is. Volkswagen’s Board and customer relations teams around the world have a tremendous challenge to support their front line people in delivering this immense customer communications task. If they get it right they also have an equally tremendous opportunity, one that could well bring them and their customers out together on the other side of this crisis; and in a much stronger relationship. Imagine that.

So then, think hard all you weighing stones in your hands, and let he or she who is without blame… and all that.