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Volkswagen crisis: Sometimes an apology just isn’t enough

by | Sep 25, 2015 | Public Relations

I offered some thoughts this week on the PR value of an apology, to a reporter with The Chicago Tribune. That got me thinking…when won’t an apology suffice?

A sincere mea culpa has always been one cornerstone of any crisis communications plan, but there are times when an apology can fall flat, or simply fail to undo the reputational damage to an organization caught up in a conflagration. In the case of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, I don’t see even a heartfelt apology as helping very much.

Apologizing works well if you’re a chain store or health system whose computers have been hacked for personal data. You’ve been victimized too, even if your lapse in security led to the attack. Saying “I’m sorry” can mitigate a human lapse in judgment, like if you’re a politician or an athlete caught in an extramarital affair, or sexting pictures of yourself to consenting adults.  Begging forgiveness, accepting punishment, and promising to do right can even work if you’ve been caught cheating in the big game (are you reading this, Tom Brady?).

Even BP found some degree of redemption by owning up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in history, albeit with an apology that came very late and with CEO Tony Hayward putting his foot in his mouth.

But all bets are off once you’ve been charged with a crime, in which case your apology rings hollow and sounds like you’re simply sorry for being caught.  And it’s not an easy out if your organization has been accused of long-term, systematic shenanigans, the likes of which VW has been charged with. A blatant attempt to game the system at the expense of vehicle owners and the environment cannot be written off as a lapse in judgment, a mistake by a group of engineers, or even an act of desperation to meet a deadline or federal regulation.

We live in a culture that badly wants to forgive brands that we’re fond of.  But sometimes, the act is so bad there is no reasonable excuse, no combination of words to undo the damage. Even when an apology is accepted, it takes definitive action by the organization and time on the part of your constituents to move forward in a climate of trust and affinity.  In VW’s case, however, even the boldest of actions likely won’t be enough to mollify customers, shareholders, and analysts, let alone authorities.

The resignation by CEO Martin Winterkorn was an obvious first move, but mulling a replacement from within the corporate family—even a division like Porsche that has been untouched by the scandal—doesn’t deliver the assurance stakeholders need to move forward or the public needs to think “friendly and fun” instead of “cheaters.”

As investigations continue, arrests, trials and possible jail terms for company executives complicit in this software scam might be a better starting point for corporate redemption. And surely, class action lawsuits will fly, with vehicle owners who’ve suffered a devaluation of their cars eventually being made whole. The company needn’t wait for the court filings; setting up a special compensation fund for duped customers should be on the Day One agenda for whomever takes the reins.

This was nothing but corporate trickery fueled by greed and a desire to thumb its nose at environmental regulations. An apology at this point would be like a bank robber apologizing to the court after being caught after his 10th stick-up.  It will fall on deaf ears, and not lessen the sentence by the judge or the public by one iota.

Guest contributor Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. Visit Swordfish online at www.swordfishcomm.com.

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Gary Frisch
Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. He is also the author of “Strike Four,” a novel about minor league baseball. Visit the firm online at Swordfish Communications.

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