Saturday, May 28, 2016 will be the 70th anniversary of the founding of Volkswagen – but for obvious reasons there will be something of a cloud hanging over that anniversary. Frankly, it’s a tragedy for all concerned, the company has risen from the ashes of World War II to the point where it is building and selling almost 10 million vehicles each year.
Then on Friday, 18 September 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said beginning in 2008 the automaker improperly installed engine control unit (ECU) software determined to be a “defeat device”, in violation of the Clean Air Act to circumvent environmental regulations of NOx emissions by diesel engine 2009-2015 model year Volkswagen and Audi cars.
(The software detects when the cars were being subject to emissions testing, and then fully enabled ECU emission controls to successfully pass. However, during normal driving conditions, emission control software was shut off in order to attain greater fuel economy and additional power, resulting in as much as 40 times more pollution than allowed by law. Volkswagen admitted to using the defeat device, and has recalled approximately 482,000 cars.)
On Monday, 11 January 2016, Volkswagen CEO Matthias Müller told National Public Radio that the automaker did not lie in 2014 when regulators asked why its vehicles were polluting substantially more than advertised.
Müller version 1.0: “We didn’t lie. We didn’t understand the question first. And then we worked since 2014 to solve the problem.”
Someone at VW clearly tried to get Müller back on message and asked NPR for a “take two” on Monday, which he was granted:
Müller version 2.0: “Yes, the situation is, first of all we fully accept the violation. There is no doubt about it. Second, we have to apologize on behalf of Volkswagen for that situation we have created in front of customers, in front of dealers and, of course, to the authorities.”
How does a company like Volkswagen manage to let their CEO seemingly ad lib in front of the media on such a significant issue?
- Could it be that Volkswagen is too inexperienced to coordinate this scale of crisis?
- Where did Müller get version 1.0 from? I can’t believe he just created it out of thin air. Is it the story VW is using with dealers or internally? Maybe it’s how Müller is rationalizing recent events.
Either way, every time their CEO drops the ball Volkswagen’s PR department has to recover the situation and each time that happens VW’s public credibility slips a little lower. Perhaps it’s time to bring in some serious experience to manage the messaging if nothing else.
First published by Adrian G Stewart here