Volkswagen Exec’s Sincere Apology Blames Rogue Engineers – Not the Best Approach to a PR Crisis

October 19 2015

By now, most people are aware that Volkswagen’s image has taken a severe hit over the past month, when it was revealed that the automaker had installed technology in its cars that could “cheat” emissions tests. VW admitted that worldwide, 11 million cars that run on diesel fuel had this type of technology, and the researchers who discovered the falsities, found that cars emitted nearly 40 times the allowable levels of nitrogen oxides.

Not good at all, considering VW’s actions were deliberate, deceived government organizations and broke the trust of loyal VW customers around the world. Or did they? According to chief executive Michael Horn of VW’s U.S. arm during a testimony at a House subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C. on October 8th, the company is sorry about the emissions testing software, but it wasn’t the company’s decision to do this. Horn stated, “This was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason. To my understanding, this was not a corporate decision. This was something individuals did.”

It won’t be surprising if everyone who read or listened to the hearing was scratching their heads in wonder at how a few employees could manage such a feat of deception without VW executives knowing. Even Representative Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) stated so, “I cannot accept VW’s portrayal of this as something by a couple of rogue software engineers. Suspending three folks — it goes way, way higher than that.”

And folks throughout the PR industry are probably more than baffled that VW executives would think U.S. government officials and U.S. customers would believe such claims. PRWeek even reported on the “sincere apology” and noted that it fell flat with government officials.

If VW hopes to rebuild its image, win back trust, and sell automobiles again, their crisis management needs to be refined and executed with precision. This can only start if and when VW executives take responsibility for the deception and hold themselves accountable with a truthful apology to its customers, and an answer as to how the company plans to rectify the betrayal (the $7.3 billion VW set aside to address the issue is a start).

If they can’t or won’t do this, their image will be tarnished for a very long time.

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