public relations

VW's latest problem: is it the message, the messenger or something else?

Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller .  Photo credit: Guenter Schiffmann/Bloomberg

Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller.

Photo credit: Guenter Schiffmann/Bloomberg

I feel bad for Matthias Mueller right now. The current CEO of beleaguered automaker Volkswagen is attempting to smooth things over with lawmakers this week in his first official visit to the U.S. However, he couldn’t hide from his off-putting comments on Sunday at the Detroit Auto Show. Remarkably VW dug a deeper hole for Mueller when it cast blame on the circumstances of the interview rather than the substance of his remarks.

Frustrating as this is, I don’t blame Mueller.

I don’t blame the former head of Porsche, who was appointed to CEO of VW and thrust into the smoggy limelight last September, for his overall tone-deafness, lack of urgency on the emissions scandal, or even the gulf of truth that lies somewhere between his “I apologize once again” and “we didn't lie” statements.

I don’t blame Mueller because so far he’s just been the messenger – a poor one perhaps (and that is fixable) – but a messenger nonetheless. And I hold true to the notion that we shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

While VW's communication has been anything but a well-oiled machine, the opportunity to reverse that trend starts this week. Here's what can be gleaned from VW's recent road bumps and how the company can get back on track.  

TELL THE RIGHT STORY

Mueller’s messages are crafted talking points designed to share VW’s point of view or story, which is key here: it's the story VW wants to share, which sometimes isn't the story that needs to be shared. Mueller is still in his infancy as CEO, so getting the story right every time can be challenging, especially when the story is changing, opinions are shifting and emotions are running high.

As hard as it may be for some leaders to tell the unvarnished truth, doing so invites transparency and simplifies things. But simply saying the right thing isn't enough. The right words only begin to mean something when they don't always require notecards and are followed up with meaningful action. This transparency also kills a deceptive form of creative storytelling, often designed to appease a niche audience, rather than getting on with the work of repairing broken trust. In his incredibly short tenure, there has been a repeated theme of ‘misunderstanding’ with his answers that needs to be resolved immediately.

BE PREPARED

Mueller’s counselors and advisors had to know that he’d get tough questions not only from U.S. lawmakers later in the week, but also from media at the auto show in off-the-cuff moments. Language barrier aside, a lack of preparation and ownership of the clear and concise story beyond the scripted moments is showing,  and it's reflecting poorly on him and the company. His response to NPR about ethical problems is an example of not being well prepared and inconsistent: 

MUELLER:  I don’t understand whether (why) you say that.

NPR reporter:  Because Volkswagen in the U.S. intentionally lied to EPA regulators when they asked them about the problem before it came to light.

MUELLER:  We didn't lie. We didn't understand the question first.    

COMMIT TO POSITIVE CULTURE CHANGE

There is no guarantee that Mueller will choose to do the right thing – or the wrong thing – when it comes to steering the company forward. But his recent statements regarding his desire to infuse fun back into the company hints at problems with VW’s culture, especially given the cover up and deception that put VW in this position in the first place. The leadership team that has been running VW prior to and through the emissions scandal also is responsible for anointing Mueller as chief messenger. Whether he emerges from this crisis as a transformational leader is yet to be seen – and it hinges on whether or not he can deliver truthful, transparent answers and simply do the right thing, no matter the short-term cost. That alone will signal a significant shift in corporate culture, which will help to repair its troubled reputation from the inside out.

WELCOME WISE COUNSEL & COMMUNICATION

Like any successful leader, Mueller needs good counsel and must surround himself with thoughtful individuals committed to bettering the company and exceeding public expectations. He needs to set a high bar regarding insights into all facets of the company and candor of how shortcomings will be addressed. However, if what we’re seeing is an eschewing of wise counsel, preparation and well-developed messages that have failed to be delivered with the sincerity in which they were written, then Mueller’s tenure likely will become a brief footnote in the company’s history.

Until now, VW has been its own worst enemy in the last several months, but this week Mueller has an opportunity to change that. While Mueller could benefit from a more thoughtful and concerned public persona that most people intuitively expect of chief executives under fire, there should be an undefined "grace period" for inheriting and cleaning up a mess not of your own making. And despite some foot-in-mouth moments and inconsistent messaging, I find myself rooting for Mueller to make the successful evolution from brand messenger to respected CEO, and here's why:

America loves a great comeback story – especially when one humbly accepts its wrongs and works with unmatched determination and transparency to right the ship or, in this case, the car.

It is without question the story that VW should be working tirelessly and without compromise to write.  

The four-letter word that can kill credibility

Communication leaders don’t have to be in their roles for very long before they are confronted with a statement that goes something like this: 

 “We need you to find a way to put a positive spin on this.”

Spin is the one word that completely undermines what the communication function – and the PR profession – stands for. Whether it was said in jest or with every intent to sidestep the real issues at hand, spin is a trigger word the puts one's role and relationship with leaders on high alert.

Communicators are not alone in this. Our financial colleagues have a similar reaction to hearing language such as "fudge with the numbers" or "go cook the books" regardless of the context in which it was said.

But given this gaffe, it's important to give leaders the benefit of the doubt knowing that greater insight on what reputation management is and isn’t can go a long way. When corrected immediately and with resolve, leaders gain a better appreciation into how valuable their communication counsel is to protecting the brand in addition to simply promoting it.

But leaders who fail to recognize the err of their ways by advocating a less than truthful telling of any story are setting themselves up for irreparable damage – personally and for the brand.

Few companies enjoy lasting success when there is intent to spin news that isn’t deemed favorable. Every company has highs and lows. How those fluctuations get handled speaks volumes.

Further, bad news doesn’t age well, and the longer it is concealed the worse it will be when it comes to light. And it almost always does.

Spin is the four-letter word that should prompt the ethical communicator to pause and think twice. It’s typically an indicator into a leadership ethos and begs the question whether the values painted on the company wall are true or simply an outcome of a group exercise.

This is why communicators owe it to the leaders they serve and support to confront them on this issue and help them think strategically about the value of clear, concise and credible communication.

The white lie, the half-truth and the diversion tactic all constitute a lack of honesty, and when thrust upon employees, customers or the media, each audience will call it what it is. Worse yet, it erodes credibility from the inside, hollowing out a company’s values and culture while creating much larger issues.  

There’s a lot at stake packed into this one word – the ethical behavior of communicators, the credibility of leadership, and the lasting reputation of the organization. When leaders turn to their trusted communication counsel during challenging times, answers won’t necessarily be easy. But they should take great comfort in knowing that challenges will be met head on and with veracity, keeping in mind that this too shall pass. That's not the case when choosing to equate public relations as spin.

Next time you hear (or use) the word spin, think of it this way: in its simple definition, to spin is to go around and around, often at a dizzying speed.  Ironically, the things that people most often speak of spinning are the very things they don't want coming back around at all. Best to handle them the right way, the first time.