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Crises solved by content: How is that possible?

Volkswagen’s “Das Auto” slogan has acquired an entirely new connotation since VW's Dieselgate affair was uncovered. Once the news broke that the supposedly environmentally friendly VW Group had been manipulating software to simulate better emission-test results, a big scandal ensued with a huge loss of confidence among VW stakeholders.

The severe crisis at VW is not over yet, but it does seem to have died down a little. Meanwhile, it's interesting to see how hard the VW is trying to regain the confidence of their stakeholders through their content – so far with limited success.

Unfortunately, no company is immune to crises, whether through their own failings or as a result of misfortune. In such a situation, a good communication plan is a useful crisis-management tool.

Volkswagen’s “Das Auto” slogan has acquired an entirely new connotation since VW's Dieselgate affair was uncovered. Once the news broke that the supposedly environmentally friendly VW Group had been manipulating software to simulate better emission-test results, a big scandal ensued with a huge loss of confidence among VW stakeholders.

The severe crisis at VW is not over yet, but it does seem to have died down a little. Meanwhile, it's interesting to see how hard the VW is trying to regain the confidence of their stakeholders through their content – so far with limited success.

Unfortunately, no company is immune to crises, whether through their own failings or as a result of misfortune. In such a situation, a good communication plan is a useful crisis-management tool. 

Six Crisis Communication Tips

1. Assume responsibility.

No matter who causes the crisis within the organization, when a company is experiencing a scandal, management should take responsibility. It is expected that the top managers will be available to answer questions in public. This includes owning up to wrongdoing and apologizing.

VW acted promptly and released a video statement by Martin Winterkorn. In it, he apologized, promised a full investigation of the manipulation and courted the trust of employees and customers.

After the scandal was announced, the US chief Michael Horn quickly came before the public. He was equally forthright, saying "We screwed up." But he blamed only a few isolated engineers for the software fraud.

The claim that the top management was not aware of the practice was questioned by the investigating committee in Washington and by the general public.

2. Create transparency.

After VW CEO Winterkorn resigned as a consequence of the crisis, his successor Matthias Müller promised “swift and relentless clarification."

To get the ball rolling, among other efforts, VW set up dedicated websites where customers could check their VINs to see if their vehicle was affected.

To maintain the credibility of Müller's statement, VW must report the current state of the investigation to the public on a regular basis. In addition, it’s always advisable to go public immediately with bad news because negative revelations continuing to ripple away about the emissions affair could exacerbate a serious crisis even further.

3. Act fast.

In a crisis situation, communicate quickly because if answers aren’t given quickly, more rumors will continue.

In difficult situations, many fear social media, but Twitter, Facebook and other platforms provide opportunities for crisis communication.

Of course, in critical situations, it’s not enough to respond with just short posts – the situation almost always calls for detailed explanations. However, right at the beginning of a crisis, social media channels make it possible to respond immediately.

Thus Germanwings and Lufthansa established the hashtag #indeepsorrow in March 2015 following the dramatic crash of a Germanwings plane. This was immediately taken up by many social media users to express their deep shock and sympathy about the event.

Social media channels can also be used to give your own opinions and information in order to exert better control over critical situations. This has been demonstrated in the past by FedEx and the airline JetBlue.

JetBlue was in trouble over a pilot who lost his nerve on a US domestic flight, which then had to be brought under control by the passengers. The company replied to tweets about the incident with links to a blog that contained flight updates and further information.

In response to a video showing a FedEx employee rudely throwing a fragile package, the company quickly produced its own video message which was posted online at YouTube. In the video and an accompanying blog post, the Director responsible gave an apology and announced what action was being taken for the future.

These examples show that social media channels are useful in crisis management if they can direct users to more detailed information such as links to your blog articles, video messages or press releases.

VW adopted a similar tactic to FedEx and JetBlue. The company used Facebook to explain the situation, posted Winterkorn's video statement and directed customers to a page with more information. In the future, VW should not shy away in the face of negative reactions to Dieselgate but instead continue to actively communicate on social media and respond to user comments.

4. Be consistent.

Due to hasty responses, it’s a great challenge to be consistent in crisis communication. But anyone who can speak without contradiction in a crisis will be a voice that is perceived as a credible source.

To emerge from the crisis stronger than before, not only is unified communication across all channels important but also the action taken.

VW has yet to treat all customers equally as it promised US customers $1,000 goodwill packages but not for European VW customers.

5. Recover confidence.

" Only when everything has been put on the table, when no single stone has been left unturned, only then will people begin to trust us again," said VW CEO Müller.

To prove it values trust, a company must apologize for improper conduct and provide full disclosure.

VW took several steps to regain the damaged trust of its customers. In the US, the company sent a letter of apology to its customers. In Germany, it apologized with huge advertisements in various newspapers. "We will do everything possible to regain your confidence," it said.

When it comes to trust, companies have an important target group they must not forget alongside customers, the media and the public: their employees. Many workers will feel very insecure in a crisis and will want clarity. Furthermore, affected businesses should never forget the importance of employees as brand ambassadors. VW has made a good start by directly addressing their workforce about the emissions affair in a video statement.

6. Be available for inquiries.

Should you simply go underground and refuse to answer the phone? Unfortunately, this is common behavior during crisis moments.

Experts in crisis communications advise it's best to create a team of representatives in crisis situations to respond quickly to requests. Lufthansa has been praised for its professional crisis communication after the Germanwings disaster by being open to questions and having a team serve as its point of contact.

VW seems to have adopted a different strategy in the present crisis. At times this has meant sources in Wolfsburg would not comment on speculation, would complain about the media and not respond, or respond very slowly, to press enquiries.

As part of VW’s reaction, it has brought in four agencies to tackle communications about the emissions affair. As a further consequence of the crisis, the brand is now more modest than in the past and has dropped the “Dat Auto” slogan. 

 


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