How Volkswagen can—and must—rebuild consumer trust

The automaker’s deceptive practices regarding emissions on some vehicles has hurt its stock price and has severely damaged its brand overall. Hard remedies are required.

It is not clear whether Volkswagen will survive its self-inflicted scandal caused by lying and cheating on emissions of its diesel cars.

The problem goes back to 2008, according to The New York Times, and many Volkswagen executives and engineers reportedly have been involved in the subterfuge.

VW owners around the world—not to mention VW dealers, vendors, suppliers and others—are furious at the company. Volkswagen customers, however, are most important, because their cars’ value has fallen drastically due to years of unethical behavior condoned at many levels within the company.

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So, as tens of thousands of brand-new VWs sit idle and unsold, what can the company do today to begin repairing all the damage it did to itself, its relationship with customers and its legendary brand—if anything?

1. VW has to acknowledge publicly—and to itself—that it has one of the worst self-inflicted problems in modern corporate history. The company must make such an acknowledgement regardless of consequences in order to have any chance at rebuilding trust. VW must take responsibility and admit—beyond what executives have already stated—that it knowingly caused the problem and hid it from customers for years.

2. VW must stop announcing “sweeping restructuring of its global operations.” Such old-fashioned PR card-shuffling of highly paid executives reveals a company in complete confusion and disarray and teetering on sinking. No one gives a damn about a team of new executives, because appointing new people only signals delays in righting wrongs. VW today needs one single visible “face and voice of the company” to re-establish trust with audiences. Moreover, VW has to rally all the expertise already in the company to fix its problems as quickly as possible.

3. VW must clearly explain how the company will make things right with its customers—millions of them worldwide. Making things right means detailed and specific action steps, a timeline for solutions. It might range from immediate, free repairs to outright vehicle replacements. Volkswagen can begin by giving everyone who owns a VW made in the last three years free oil changes, routine maintenance and tire rotation for however long they own the car. That would get customers coming through the doors at dealerships.

4. The company has to say that regardless of legal consequences it faces, it will be open and transparent in all communications with its customers.

5. VW must start behaving with honesty and integrity, and that begins with not hiding behind press releases and statements prepared by lawyers but rather conducting open and instantaneous interaction with customers. That can be done overnight. Customers need a channel to vent anger at the company, and that is easily and quickly achieved online. Such a moderated forum would signal that VW is listening to its audiences.

6. VW must openly communicate in the digital environment that dominates our world today. It’s not difficult, but it requires being brutally honest. VW should create a special news channel (not a PR “newsroom”) for credible news-style stories, photos and video to detail what it is doing right now to fix things.

Delay by Volkswagen will put its fate further at risk. The clock is ticking.

David Henderson is a journalist and crisis management advisor.

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