Volkswagen CEO’s gaffes recall those of BP’s chief exec

In his dealings with journalists and in other public settings, Matthias Müller seems to be emulating Tony Hayward’s tone-deaf blunders.

It’s almost as if Volkswagen AG CEO Matthias Müller studied the performance of infamous British Petroleum CEO Tony “I’d like my life back” Hayward and said, “Yes, that’s how I’d like to respond to our own company’s crisis.”

VW, which is still reeling from an emissions-rigging scandal affecting millions of vehicles, has admitted intentionally programming its engines to fool laboratory emissions tests.

On Jan.11, Müller gave a phone interview to National Public Radio that went so poorly he had to ask for a do-over.

The first time around, the reporter asked him about the perception that his company has an ethical problem, not merely a technical one. He responded: “It was an ethical problem? I cannot understand why you say that.”

As you might imagine, that answer landed like a lead balloon-and his staff quickly blamed his tin-ear response on a noisy environment. According to Bloomberg Business:

“This was a very extreme situation in which this interview took place,” spokesman Claus-Peter Tiemann said by phone. “Mueller was standing in a crowd of journalists with questions being shouted at him in different languages. One question obviously was misinterpreted, taken out of context maybe, so the interview was redone.”

Not knowing the specific setup of the room or understanding VW’s rationale for conducting an interview in such an unpredictable environment, it’s difficult for me to judge whether VW made the wrong call by holding the interview at all. (I suspect, based on the outcome, that it was.)

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Regardless, he should never have answered a question he didn’t fully understand, which is what he says he did. His spokesperson’s explanation, such as it was, used weasely passive language that left unclear whether he was blaming the gaffe on the reporter or his CEO.

An executive in crisis mode has little margin for error. His interview not only makes it look like his company is still spinning its dishonesty, but it also infuriated Connecticut’s attorney general (“one of the state attorneys general leading a multistate investigation”), who said, “In an apparent moment of candor in Detroit, we now learn that the company’s newly appointed and most senior leader doesn’t believe Volkswagen lied, which is undisputable.”

If you think this is thin evidence on which to associate Mr. Müller with Tony Hayward, consider that this isn’t the first time he’s bungled an interview. According to Bloomberg Business:

Last year he suggested to a group of journalists in Stuttgart, Germany, that he was too old to succeed then-CEO Martin Winterkorn. He later said he’d been misunderstood. Then during Porsche’s annual earnings press conference he let slip plans for an all-electric vehicle. Though he evaded follow-up questions, the unit showed the car months later at the Frankfurt motor show.

Wait, there’s more. Remember how Tony Hayward was savaged in the press for attending a yacht race during his company’s disastrous oil spill? Here’s Bloomberg Business on Mr. Müller:

The 62-year-old Volkswagen veteran, who previously ran the Porsche sports car brand, was photographed with a bottle of champagne at the Leipzig Opera Ball shortly after he took over as CEO in the wake of the scandal. He then turned up a few weeks later smiling on the sidelines of a car race in Bahrain.

Tone-deaf statements. Minimizing the crisis. Showing up at ritzy events as his company’s reputation was taking a severe hit. Sounds like Tony Hayward to me.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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