VV car in red

The VW emissions crisis: How PR can play its part

With the company’s share value crashing, the CEO clinging to his job by his fingertips (at the time of writing), the prospect of 11 million cars being recalled worldwide and the company’s once proud reputation in tatters – you could say that this week’s Volkswagen emission fiasco has been a bit of a car crash.

PRs are rapidly being dragged in for ‘crisis management’ and are probably suffering sleepless nights. They’ll be trying to get to the bottom of what’s happened (and who’s to blame); fielding endless calls and emails from journalists; trying to understand the business impact and stopping VW shares going into freefall; gauging the feelings of the press and public (are they going to forgive us?); and deciding the best way forward and how much it will cost the company (likely to be 6.5bn euros).

Step 1: Make a video and say you’re ‘endlessly sorry’.

We see this all the time: PRs bought in at the last-minute once the brown stuff has hit the fan and the business needs to dig its way out of a problem. In businesses that are crisis-driven rather than strategy-driven, the PR department is generally forced to be reactive instead of proactive.

But organisations need to understand that a PR executive should be at the very heart of every business, working at board level alongside the CEO and senior management and helping to shape and influence new products and services; rather than just writing a press release at the end of the process when the product is ready to launch.

A senior corporate PR who’s involved in the business from a strategic point of view is ideally positioned to identify opportunities and threats and support the company’s goals in the long term; they have their fingers on the pulse of the business, so can help an organisation to stay ahead, not just stay on top; they understand social, technological, environmental, cultural and economic trends, so can ensure an organisation is structurally and culturally ready for the challenges ahead.

In fact, organisations that have PRs involved from the offset are rarely caught out by events like we’ve seen this week. They can spot potential problems early in the process and can advise on the necessary action to take – before being forced to do so by a baying public.

Only time will tell how the VW issue will pan out. But as strategist Vincenzo Longo from Milan-based IG Group said: “We don’t see any stop to this bloodbath unless there is a change at the head of VW and full cooperation with authorities. Some heads need to roll to get investors buying back VW.”

VW’s PRs better prepare for a bumpy ride.

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