VW Scandal

Dumbstruck after Dieselgate

Matthias Müller, Chief Executive Officer of Volkswagen is in deep trouble. Source: Bloomberg
The incoming chief executive officer of Volkswagen has his work cut out.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The revolution at Volkswagen prompted by the emissions scandal has not yet reached its communications department, writes the author. This could have disasterous and costly results.

  • Facts


    • Volkswagen has so far acknowledged that 8 million diesel vehicles in the European Union have the software that cheats emissions tests.
    • A report last week suggested that its unleaded vehicles might also be affected, despite VW’s previous denial.
    • VW is now looking into the rest of the new generation fleet to see if it also has the software.
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It’s no secret that things at Volkswagen have gone haywire.

“The past few days have no doubt left you anxious and disappointed regarding current discussions about the irregularities of the software used in diesel engines,” begins a letter that is currently being sent out to thousands of customers.

Volkswagen customers driving cars taking unleaded gasoline, who so far have been given no cause for concern, will also receive the letter.

Now, in the fall of 2015, Volkswagen finds itself a global corporation in the eye of a storm.

It’s both an operational and a communications emergency. One false word from the press office, and the clever lawyers and cynical observers lurking all over the world will pounce. One false word could cost the company millions more in damages.

Given the apparent communications lockdown, it's no surprise that it turns out VW may have more skeletons in its closet.

It’s no surprise then, that VW has more or less gone to ground.

“Could you put your request in writing?” is what journalists are now told when they call up the offices of those who are actually paid to speak. Of course we can. We write them. Then hours pass. Sometimes days.

Many glaring questions remain unanswered, but also even the harmless ones. For example, are VW, Seat and Skoda also planning dealer campaigns to support the sale of used cars, as Audi has announced it is doing?

Given the apparent communications lockdown, it’s no surprise that it turns out VW may have more skeletons in its closet.

Thursday’s report claiming that new diesel engines, which were installed about a year ago, could also have been outfitted with the cheating software brought further chaos to VW’s communications operations.

Just a week earlier, the company’s spokespeople had confidently announced that the “current next generation of engines EA 288 (in use starting in 2012) is not affected.”

If they’d wanted to counter the latest damning allegations, they could have just powered through and denied the report, which is riddled with subjunctives.

Instead, the opposite happened. The company dutifully reported that the next generation engines, marketed under the old pollutant class Euro 5, were now being checked.

Inevitably, this move raised the question of why it hadn’t happened long ago. Surely the diesel engine scandal should have prompted the carmaker to look at its other engines?

The report on the new generation of engines came late in the day on Thursday.

“Volkswagen confirms today that no software constituting an improper defeat device as defined in law is installed in vehicles with EA 288 EU5 as well as EU6 engines in the European Union,” the company announced. Wait, wasn’t that what they said a week ago?

Things have been on the up at VW for so long that it must be strange for the company to lose control over its communications. Since 2007, everything has been more or less rosy. 

Earlier scandals over luxury trips with works council members were now distant memories. Employees looked forward to their firm finally becoming the biggest carmaker in the world.

Back then, criticism was effectively and swiftly fought off. But meanwhile, behind the scenes, repeated efforts to initiate a kind of Perestroika, or opening up, in the car giant’s communications were being repressed. That is while the going was good at least.

Now, no one inside VW can claim things are going well.

That’s why incoming chief executive Matthias Müller is not just preaching a change in culture, he is leading by example. Those close to him, both inside and outside the company, say he is showing the way to many in the old Volkswagen world with no clue of what to do to tackle the scandal.

But this change in culture hasn’t quite reached the company’s communications division. VW’s internal press review is still filtered, with truly critical pieces – such as this one perhaps – being excluded altogether.

These are wild times for the Wolfsburg-based car company, which despite everything still might become the world’s biggest carmaker by the end of the year, a goal first set for 2018.

Achieving that would mark a surreal end to a surreal year, in which the company has gone from overconfidence in its communications to almost complete speechlessness.

Sometimes, you can’t help wishing for a bit of business as usual.


To contact the author: schnell@handelsblatt.com

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