Crisis Lesson: The Not So Environmentally Friendly Volkswagen

Posted by on July 11, 2017

No organization is immune to crises. Despite taking preventative steps, an issue could pop up. Here’s the thing: Some matters will always be out of our control, and that’s why it’s important to focus on the things you can control—like the damage control steps you take following a crisis and how you communicate those efforts.

Below, we dive into the Volkswagen emissions scandal and examine what the auto giant might have done differently to avoid criticism and negative PR.

  • The scenario: In 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency accused Volkswagen of manipulating engine controls in order to pass laboratory emissions tests—a violation of the Clean Air Act. On top of that, the company faced millions of distrusting customers who were lied to regarding how environmentally friendly Volkswagen actually was.
  • Actions taken: Contradictory responses were the hallmark of the Volkswagen scandal. Exhibit A: Executives originally claimed they weren’t aware of the cheating—only to reveal their involvement a few days later. In the end, the company recalled vehicles and promised to reimburse some—but not all—customers.
  • Lessons learned:
    1. Keep your message consistent: Create a statement that will be used by all employees when communicating with the media or any other external sources.
    2. Be authentic: Not only should you exude empathy in your statement to anyone who was harmed or offended, but you should also be honest about the situation.
    3. Look to the future: Demonstrate a commitment to change in some way. For example, Volkswagen might have put forth new emissions standards or partnered with an environmental group to combat air pollution.

While crises are never easy to deal with, they’re not always threats. In fact, they can create an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and accountability when handled properly.

What are some of your favorite examples of crisis management case studies that have useful PR lessons?


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