Tag Archives: crisis communications

Worst PR Crisis of 2015: The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal

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PR-online-reputation2015 has seen one the biggest cases of corporate fraud since Enron in 2001: the Volkswagen emissions scandal. By rigging the software system of their diesel vehicles so that they can successfully pass environmental tests, Volkswagen has not only broken the law in many jurisdictions but also blatantly lied to its customers and stakeholders. In doing so, VW tarnished two of the core values on which it had built its reputation since World War II: trust and integrity—technical reliability and safety being the others. Ironically, Volkswagen had been the least probable candidate in terms of corporate fraud in the public eye. Nobody would have expected such a breach of ethics from the German carmaker. The fact that recent news reports seem to confirm that the number of cars equipped with the test-rigging software system might have been overestimated does not lessen in anyway the initial intention to mislead. As a result, Volkswagen is facing its most severe reputation crisis since its implication with the Nazi regime over 70 years ago.

While there are too many facets to this scandal to be evoked in a single blog post, the Volkswagen story is sure to become a textbook example of what not to do—and what to do, if the recovery is well handled—in business management and public relations manuals. For us, public relations professionals, the VW story is interesting on many fronts: from crisis planning and crisis management to image restoration and the role of social media in fuelling and potentially helping to solve a crisis. Who hasn’t smiled at the joke circulating on social media platforms and turning the company’s well-known tagline “Volkswagen. Das Auto.” into a well-deserved “Volkswagen. Das Cheater.”? The story is also a compelling case from a professional ethics point of view. Public relations professionals pledge to never “knowingly disseminate false or misleading information.” Therefore, it must have been quite an ordeal for VW’s PR team to learn of their company’s breach of trust and to realise they had communicated information that was misleading all along—although unintentionally.

A recent Leger marketing survey conducted in October 2015 indicated that Volkswagen’s reputation score among Canadians (

) has dropped 61 points from 44 to -17 pre- to post-crisis—one of the lowest scores ever recorded in 18 years of Leger’s reputation index. What is interesting, however, is that the survey paints a different picture among VW customers. Despite a 32-point drop, VW manages to earn a score of 62 points (down from 94, pre-crisis). VW customers, (https://twitter.com/dave_scholz/status/657550765045784576) seem to be less affected by the emissions scandal than Canadians as a whole. One of the reasons for this put forth by some experts is that the German carmaker might still be viewed by its customer base as a safe and reliable carmaker from an engineering standpoint despite the company’s breach of trust and ethics on the emissions file. Above all, this survey reinforces the fact that the VW scandal is complex and that the company’s stakeholders have been affected differently as it is usually the case. The fact that Volkswagen operates globally only adds to the complexity of the story and makes VW’s road to recovery even more compelling to watch.

As Volkswagen sales growth in Europe and North America has stalled, only time will tell whether or not VW remains in the ditch and for how long.  The Volkswagen emissions scandal was most likely the worst PR crisis of 2015. What was the one that caught your attention and why? Tell us at #CPRSToronto.

Katia Collette, APR    CPRS Toronto, Treasurer

Adrienne Batra shares four pieces of advice for communicators

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By Danielle D’Ornellas 

Members can view an archived version of this May 29, 2012 presentation (length 45:30) by Adrienne Batra, Comments Editor, Toronto Sun and former Press Secretary to Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford in the members’ only blog.

On Tuesday, May 29 Adrienne Batra spoke to CPRS Toronto members at the Annual General Meeting, an audience that was as hungry for anecdotes about Mayor Rob Ford as they were for appetizers. Being the natural public-speaker that she is, Batra was more than happy to oblige, but with her varied work experience she also provided the audience (which comprised of students, volunteers and board members alike) with tips that were relevant for communicators at any level.

Batra shared advice in four key areas that resonated with me. She also provided examples of how they were reflected in her career.

 1. Always accept a challenge

People don’t enter public relations because they think it’ll be easy, but Batra’s career was particularly challenging from the start. She joined the Canadian Forces and it was during her six years in the army when she rose to the rank of Lieutenant that she cut her teeth in public affairs. One of the most challenging controversies she had to deal with in that position was speaking on behalf of her squadron during the Somalia Inquiry.

 2. Be ready to move quickly

The 24-hour news cycle waits for no one and sometimes you just have to be the one to bite the bullet and press the issue. When Batra was a member of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, she played a role in the resignation of Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray. After a media appearance where Murray declared his intention to run for federal office while still retaining his position as mayor, Batra sent out a press release asking for his resignation. She sent it within 30 minutes of his announcement and completely took over the news cycle. Murray resigned his position the same day.

 3. Get in front of the issue

Before she was approached to work for the Rob Ford campaign Batra had recently moved to Toronto and had a new position — stay-at-home mom. Within a week of starting her work with Ford she was already working at full-speed putting out fires. And just what was her strategy for dealing with a client who speaks his mind quite freely? Getting in front of the issue every time. Whenever a story about Rob Ford emerged Batra would take ownership of the story. Her straightforward manner and no-nonsense approach complimented Ford’s spontaneity, which was reflected in the polls.

 4. Know when to move on

Public relations thrives off of new blood. People are constantly switching sectors, changing agencies or striking out on their own. It’s just part of the industry and Batra experienced that itch first-hand. As amusing as she made her time with the mayor out to be, it clearly wasn’t all fun and games; it was a burnout job. She was working for a man who took pride in having a staff half the size of his predecessor, all the while providing them with more work to do. And despite Batra’s best intentions and strategies, she was fighting a daily battle on all sides to represent her client. At some point after being offered a position at the Toronto Sun Batra made the decision to return to a life of reduced notoriety to spend more time with her family and so far hasn’t looked back.

Ultimately, when it came to her time working for Rob Ford Adrienne Batra’s overall strategy was that success in communications comes down to ownership, whether that ownership is over the issue, your client’s reputation or your own career.