Three Public Relations Lessons From Volkswagen

I do not envy the public relations team at Volkswagen after the revelation that the world's largest automaker used software to game emissions tests on 11 million vehicles worldwide, and 500,000 in the United States.

While the situation looks dire for the backbone of the German economy, there are lessons to be learned from their approach. So what can we learn from the Öffentlichkeitsarbeit (public relations) effort?

  1. The cover-up is always worse than the offense. New details uncovered show that VW has known about the skewed results for some time and has chosen to remain silent. A simple research study performed by West Virginia University exposed the problem, and VW has been facing questions from regulators for three years regarding discrepancies. If your company has been operating in a nefarious manner, come clean to employees, stakeholders, clients, and the public. Do not let someone else break the story.

  2. A public apology always helps when you are obviously in the wrong. On Sunday, VW CEO Martin Winkerton offered a personal and heartfelt public apology. Of course the way to avoid a public embarrassment is to not act outside of the law, but if so, make sure your remorse is real. The apology seems to have worked in the short-term, as stock prices for VW began to recover from their tailspin.

  3. Offer a solution before someone else does. Perhaps the best tactic used by VW to save face is the solution they have offered. VW has put aside $7.2 billion in anticipation of repairs and fines from governments around the world. While your company may not have the coffers to offer such a settlement, being the one offering the solution after a mistake is always advisable. Besides, who wants to rely on the court of public opinion? Or a court of law?

Volkswagen is in a world of hurt, no question. In the world of corporate mistakes and recoveries, theirs stands out. Time will tell if VW survives the scandal; their pockets are deep enough that they are likely to withstand this self-inflicted wound.

But it looks as if Winkerton will lose his post.

In the short few days the story has been evolving, public sentiment seems to have shifted because of the forward thinking PR effort. Sehr schön (very nice), Volkswagen.

- Casey Whittington