German car manufacturer Volkswagen is in full PR crisis mode this week, having become embroiled in one of the biggest scandals to hit the automotive industry in recent years.
The company has sensationally admitted that around 11 million of its cars worldwide were ‘rigged’ to cheat emissions testing, wiping millions off VW’s share value and raising serious questions about cars and the environment.
It’s a bombshell alright, but how is Volkswagen handling the crisis?
First of all the company’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, faced up to the cameras, admitting that his company had deliberately set out to deceive US environmental regulators: “We totally screwed up,” he acknowledged.
“I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public,” he went on. “We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case. Volkswagen has ordered an external investigation of this matter.”
The company’s official 188-word statement hit more or less the right notes, words like ‘trust’ (three times), ‘transparency’, ‘urgency’, ‘openly’ all doing their best to show how committed VW is to doing, as they say, “everything necessary to reverse the damage this has caused”.
One of the first casualties of the investigation, almost inevitably, was CEO Winterkorn himself who stepped down while registering his shock “that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group”. He added that he was not aware of any wrongdoing on his part.
Getting rid of the boss is part of the damage-limitation process, but in this case it will be months or even years before the extent of the damage is apparent. Behind the scenes, we can assume that everything possible is being done to get to the bottom of what really happened, how and why. That information will have a major impact on VW, on the wider industry, and possibly even further afield – we shall see.
In the meantime, what is happening to Volkswagen should serve as a cautionary tale for companies everywhere – be prepared! You know not the day or the hour when disaster may come calling. Here are our five tips for handling a PR crisis:
- Have a plan
By the time a crisis hits, it’s too late to start planning so put ‘risk’ on the agenda now. What could possibly go wrong in your business? What is the worst case scenario – that’s your starting point – and what steps would you take to deal with it? Media training might be required for senior executives who may some day have to face the cameras and explain some harsh truths. Right now, time is on your side so use that time to put a plan in place.
- Tell your staff what’s happening
In the scramble to deal with the outside world, it can be easy to overlook your primary audience – your own staff and employees. This audience should be briefed as frankly as possible, as quickly as possible. They are part of the crisis too, and it’s important that they know what’s going on.
- Front up as soon as possible – and don’t go away
Even if you don’t have all the facts – and it’s unlikely you will, not at the ‘unfolding’ stage – you must be prepared to show your face, even if it’s just to admit that yes, there is a problem and yes, we are dealing with it. Don’t allow a vacuum to develop, as this will quickly get filled by third-party views and opinions (social media is just perfect for fanning the flames). Front up, take responsibility, and tell the truth. Be available also while the story is developing so that you and not they are in control of the message.
- Get to the bottom of what happened
Finding out the what, why and how is an essential part of dealing with any crisis. Depending on the scale of the issue – as with VW – there may need to be an external investigation; in any case it is imperative that the company in the eye of the storm is seen to be open and transparent with the facts. Keep a close eye on what people are saying, and be prepared to step in to fill any information void or address any inaccuracies.
- Learn from it
First of all, you want to make sure that whatever happened does not happen again. Take the appropriate operational or procedural steps to close off that eventuality. Then from a communications point of view, conduct a thorough review of your response to the crisis and decide what worked, what didn’t, and how the crisis plan can be refined if the worst case scenario happens again.
Cullen Communications provides crisis management support and media training.