Crisis Communications

When the Volkswagen emissions scandal broke, it dominated the news cycle for an extended period of time — a nightmare for any crisis communications handler. An article from the gray lady herself points to lessons to take away from this automotive meltdown.

“There was something like a tsunami,” Hans-Gerd Bode, the most recent communications chief for Volkswagen told the New York Times. “A crisis like this, the company was not prepared for,” he said.

Writer Danny Hakim points to the fact that Volkswagen’s multiple brands and markets led to a large scale, global communications crisis with differing laws depending on the country.

“While it is not the first time American regulators have caught an automaker using a so-called defeat device — a mechanism or software used to thwart emissions tests — the Volkswagen deception takes place on a global scale, from a company that marketed itself as environmentally sensitive, and at a time when emissions regulation is being taken increasingly seriously,” writes Hakim.

By changing its marketing strategy in the United States, including a simpler slogan, says Hakim, the company hopes to keep a low profile.

Eileen Sheil, executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, wrote about three steps necessary for crisis communications in PR Weekly.

1. Look forward: try to get ahead of the story by understanding potential problems. “Take time throughout the year to spend time with your executives – from the CEO to the CFO to the chief legal officer – to learn what’s on their mind and what keeps them awake at night. Understand the issues and determine how they may impact the media, the public, and other stakeholders,” writes Sheil.

2. Teach the higher-ups: Make sure everyone knows the role of PR when a crisis hits. “ The earlier we’re engaged in a discussion about an issue, the better we can advise, plan, and execute communications,” says Sheil.

3. Futurecast scenarios: how will the issue evolve? “Engage the best of your team and practice together so everyone is ready, knows their role and can do their best work when preparing for a crisis or reputational risk event,” says Sheil.