Fahrvergnügen, Meet Iacocca

Dan Wardby Dan Ward

Volkswagen is rightfully facing criticism (and a plummeting stock price) after admitting to rigging potentially millions of cars to surpass pollution limits.

The company has admitted that software was installed that switches engines to cleaner mode during testing, but turns that software off again once testing is over. That results in more “driving enjoyment” – the English translation of the famous Fahrvergnügen tagline – but also a lot more pollution.

But the positive sign – at least for those of us who communicate for a living – is how Volkswagen is dealing with the news. Instead of defensive lawyer-speak, U.S. President and CEO Michael Horn used these words:  “Our company was dishonest … we have totally screwed up … We have to make things right.”

And this from the company’s chief executive, Martin Winterkorn: “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers … To make it very clear: Manipulation at VW must never happen again.”

The VW response reminds me of a story we often share during our Message Matrix® training sessions regarding Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler when that company was found to be removing miles from odometers, selling slightly used cars as brand new.

His comments at the time were surprising, because they were so straightforward.  He said the practice “went beyond dumb and reached all the way to stupid,” adding “I’m damned sorry it happened, and you can bet that it won’t ever happen again.” That straight talk resonated with customers and with media, and is credited with saving his company.

Whether such straight talk will save VW remains to be seen. The company must back its words with action. But they’ve certainly taken the right initial steps to eventually regain their customers’ trust.

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