VW’s reputation up in smoke: the first global brand crisis?

Obviously not.

But Volkswagen’s handling of the crisis that exploded following the revelation that the company had deliberately installed software that reduced exhaust emissions only at the time of scheduled services, reminds every organization that life is now too fast and too connected – to consumers, customers, regulators, journalist, activities and legislators, around the world – to rely on outdated attitudes to communication, and outdated policies that stifle agile crisis responses.

Companies can no longer wait for head office to catch up.

Companies can no longer wait for the legal team to review every sentence.

What’s right and culturally relevant for one country is not right for another. One corporate size – and one response – does not fit all.

That VW is large in America, but a cultural and economic icon in Germany, as one example, creates two distinctly different contexts and challenges. One is a market, one is a political minefield. Each requires an almost-instant response.

Local language means just that (and more) – in tone and nuance as well as actual language.

For decades, professional public relations practitioners have counselled clients and employers on the need for crisis planning, and the benefits and value in having such plans.

We were not crying wolf.

One might argue that shareholders should demand that companies provide meaningful and current crisis plans to mitigate, explain and respond to crisis. The town of Wolfsburg, VW’s home, is reliant on the company for most of its revenue, and the State of Lower Saxony owns 20% of the company according to the Guardian. Both might well revise their shareholder demands in due course.

This will likely become the defining crisis communications case study, not least because of its willful initiation. (Even BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill was an accident.)

Five take-outs from me? Almost impossible to know where to start, but I suggest the following ( to start with):

  • don’t marginalize the corporate communication function
  • define, develop and mutually agree protocols that connect the CEO’s office, the legal department and the corporate communications department
  • create a definitive framework for fractured, empowered global communication: build a framework that embeds the abandonment of a crisis command-and-control culture
  • factor in all the services needed in a crisis
  • HQ must  develop protocols that allow subsidiaries to ‘go early’, and the subsidiaries must understand that, with this freedom, they now operate in a connected world

None of these are easy or quick to achieve.

None should be set in aspic.

All should be started tomorrow morning.


About alansmithoz

Head of Strategic Business Communications at Australian social analytics technology company Digivizer, with a background in corporate public relations and marketing. I do what I do because I believe communications can make a difference.
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