A beloved brand has been tarnished.
German automotive giant Volkswagen has admitted to using software to cheat on emissions tests of its TDI diesel engines.
While investigations remain underway, evidence suggests that these engines emit nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above levels allowed in the US.
In other words, VW told everyone their diesel cars were good for the environment when, in fact, they were just the opposite.
To make matters worse, hyperbole in the statements attributed to Volkswagen’s (now former) CEO Martin Winterkorn indicate a cover-our-butts attitude on the part of company management.
Winterkorn’s corporate messaging was overwritten and insincere.
Days before his resignation, he issued this statement: “ . . . I don’t have the answers to all the questions, but we’re in the process of ruthlessly investigating the issue, and to that end everything will be put on the table as fast, thoroughly and transparently as possible.”
They’ve been caught in a lie on a systemic scale, but now we’re asked to believe that they’ll ruthlessly expose the truth? For that matter, how can they be transparent if the CEO was kept in the dark about illegal software going into millions of cars on his watch?
So, what kind of language should leaders use to admit quilt, but also lay a foundation for rebuilding a brand’s reputation?
The goal of the message is to preserve the brand without dwelling on the negative actions of its leaders.
- Be transparent. Don’t sidestep questions, pass the buck or downplay your wrongdoing. No matter how sensitive the situation, there is always a way to spill the truth.
- Be considerate. Protect the reputation of everyone involved, but make sure you admit fault and expose potential conflicts. Your audience needs to be kept in the loop and you can better control perceptions if you’re the one conveying messages.
- Remain objective. Businesses are constantly changing and what is true today may not be true tomorrow. Address both sides of the situation and encourage your audience to see your perspective.
- Focus on the brand. Leaders come and go and people fall short, but a brand lives on forever in the hearts of its customers—don’t damage it by trying to save yourself.
Has VW gone from love bug to dung beetle? Probably not. But they’ve got a lot of road to cover —and fast—to rebuild trust.
Before you act . . .
Every organization should have a vetted message set focused on candor, credibility and core values that it can draw on in a crisis to rebuild lost loyalties. If you don’t have one, start writing it today.