By on January 13, 2016


On Monday, Volkswagen CEO Matthias Müller told NPR that the automaker didn’t lie in 2014 when regulators asked the automaker why its cars were polluting way more than advertised:

“We didn’t lie. We didn’t understand the question first. And then we worked since 2014 to solve the problem.”

Immediately realizing that wasn’t the thing to say, Müller asked NPR for a do-over Monday, which he got:

“Yeah, the situation is, first of all we fully accept the violation. There is no doubt about it. Second, we have to apologize on behalf of Volkswagen for that situation we have created in front of customers, in front of dealers and, of course, to the authorities. …”

Which sounds much more conciliatory, but doesn’t necessarily contradict his earlier statement. So, yeah, this isn’t good.

So what are we supposed to believe?

First, we know that Volkswagen has a tendency to say some weird stuff when approached with the cold-stone fact that their cars aren’t exactly as advertised. From Nov. 2:

“(Volkswagen) wishes to emphasize that no software has been installed in the 3-liter V6 diesel power units to alter emissions characteristics in a forbidden manner.”

And now, Müller’s NPR statement that he was a little confused because of “everybody shouting” is another page from a communications strategy I can’t comprehend at the moment.

(Müller’s comments are doubly strange considering he’s not alone in a sea of complete savages — Müller’s actions and interviews should be very carefully choreographed.)

All of which could lead us to a few conclusions about Volkswagen at this point:

• First, that the automaker is so segmented and broken that one of the automaker’s hands has no idea what the other is doing.

• Or second, that Müller is such a terrible traveler that he can’t think straight days after flying across the pond, in which case, is that the best face-man for the world’s second largest automaker?

• Or third, that somewhere, someone in Volkswagen has cultivated a narrative that hundreds of engineers and lawyers couldn’t understand what laws are, which is frankly very hard to believe.

• Or last, that something was lost in the translation, which again, is he the best person to prop up as CEO?

Personally, after listening to the conversation several times, I understand how it could be all four at the same time.

Müller’s apologies all sound very similar: they’re relatively uniform and sound carefully crafted. There’s no doubt that he’s been groomed in the new world of corporate apologies.

Furthermore, when he starts talking about the “technical problem,” he sounds like he’s going off script, and he could be referring to what the automaker is allowed to pass through European regulators, and what U.S. officials won’t take, which is a huge difference. We all know the European test isn’t based in reality, whatsoever. But that wasn’t a smart comment to make right now, either way.

Even more, from a legal perspective, Volkswagen may be crafting a message about how emissions laws in the U.S. are a moving target. Remember how the PT Cruiser technically qualified as light van? Exactly. Ignorance of the law excuses no one, but there’s a lot of room between getting spanked for what you’ve admitted to and what you’ve lied about, and what you can still get away with. It sounds like Volkswagen’s team is considering all three possibilities.

It’s also easy to imagine how an automaker that has tens of thousands of employees may not have a full grasp of how it implemented millions of emissions-cheating devices in its cars.

All of which means that an uphill battle for Volkswagen’s PR department is infinitely harder because even the automaker isn’t sure what the hell is going on anymore.

They may want another do-over.

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33 Comments on “Case Study in Public Relations: Volkswagen’s Diesel Crisis...”

  • avatar

    I wonder how Herr Muller was coerced into this gig? With the VW corporate culture summed up as: ‘Failure is not tolerated’, this must be the worst job in the world at the moment.

  • avatar

    There is something I don’t get… moving beyond the moral imperative of doing what’s right, being honest and treating your customers without contempt.

    How is it a company such as VW with so much to lose can simply continue to deny and dismiss all the damage they have done?

    Forget about the harm to the environment, their business and any shred of good will.

    Why would anyone in the right mind trust this corporation in the future. Can they be so arrogant as to dismiss any positive sentiment they have now squandered. Worse yet what about the lack of trust between any current or potential customers in the future?

    It sure seems to me this company has not suffered near enough to humble them… as far as I can tell they haven’t just lost potential customers they have lost something far more valuable, they have lost the trust of everyone.

    Perhaps they are counting on ppl just having short memories who will eventually dismiss this as just doing business in the 21st century?

    • 0 avatar

      I hear what you are saying but…

      I am going to take the stereotypical line here: look at the typical VW customer excluding the GTI/GTL. They have short memories, don’t care anything but the short term, and probably don’t even comprehend how badly VW screwed the pooch on this one.

      So my not so humble opinion is that VW will survive if the government doesn’t rape them to death because their customer base will continue to purchase the disposable junk they call cars.

    • 0 avatar

      How can a company that produces cars in regular need of very expensive repair be considered premium and continue to grow to be on of the largest auto companies on the planet?

      They preach “German Engineering” that’s how. There are some things I just don’t understand about consumers.

    • 0 avatar

      Trust? Lol! They’re dealing with the government of a country who buys American Racing rims and Buicks that are made in China, behavior that is costing a substantial portion of their own population liveable-wage jobs. I can’t blame them for having contempt. You want respect you gotta earn it son.

    • 0 avatar

      My 2012 Jetta TDI is my fifth VAG product and I can say with certainty it will be my last.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    All he had to say was “I’m sorry for the trouble, and we’ll make it better.”

    Instead, he just exposed his own incompetence. I don’t think it tells us much more about Volkswagen, except to worsen things.

  • avatar

    Up until recent events, I was still considering getting a VW GTI or Golf R for my next car, hopefully at a discount. But now I am starting to see just how awful this company is and I have pretty much excluded their products from any consideration. My previous horrible experience with VW “quality” is the icing on the cake.

    • 0 avatar
      Ashy Larry

      This is exactly where I am. I am in the market for a fun, manual transmission hatchback. The GTI and Golf R were at the top of my list, and were probably the prohibitive favorites. Both are amazing cars. Then September hit and, as someone whose day job includes corporate compliance, I could not in good faith send my money to a company that proved itself so rotten. I almost relented a few weeks ago and started looking at the Golf R again, until this latest round of incompetence. This is not a car company I feel good about sending my money to — not just because of their now uncertain future, but because of their sheer arrogance in the face of cancerous corporate rot.

      Good cars savaged by terrible ethics. Now my car search is in a shambles; a Clubman or Countryman are the curren leaders.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m with you in looking for a fun hatch. I am now looking into the Ford Focus, Fiesta ST, and Mazda3. Mini is off my list because of no local dealers and their terrible quality reputation.

  • avatar

    This is a prime example of having people assume you might be incompetent versus opening one’s mouth to remove all doubt.

  • avatar

    I understand what Mueller is trying to say. What he doesn’t grasp is that there are others who won’t or won’t want to.

    Case in point: The blogosphere is filled with people who don’t understand the difference between NOx emissions and CO2 emissions and that the two issues are not directly related. One of them wrote this article…

    • 0 avatar
      Aaron Cole

      … I think you’re talking about someone else.

      • 0 avatar

        If that’s what you think, then we have bigger problems than I had thought.

        Above, you said this:

        “he could be referring to what the automaker is allowed to pass through European regulators, and what U.S. officials won’t take, which is a huge difference.”

        You supported your quote with this link (note the title):

        That makes it pretty clear that you do not understand the difference between the US issue (NOx levels and the illegal installation of a cheat device) and a European test for MPG.

        CO2 is directly related to the amount of fuel burned — you can convert MPG and CO2 directly.

        NOx levels are a function of the smog control equipment installed on the car. It is possible for a gas guzzler to have lower NOx emissions than a fuel sipper, even though the latter is using less fuel.

        You can’t directly compare a NOx standard to a CO2 (read: fuel economy) standard.

        What can be compared is that the EU does permit higher NOx levels than the US. But that is a different issue from the fuel economy test.

        • 0 avatar
          Aaron Cole

          I get that. But the point that I was making is that all European tests are conducted at specialist sites paid for by the automaker, under the supposed supervision of regulators with different acceleration methods and a European cycle that actually permits different states of engine tunes to pass through emissions — which is still covered in that story. The U.S. (at least on paper) does its own testing and requires automakers to submit in advance what their AECD do in advance before they get started. There are major differences in how Euro and American emissions tests are conducted.

          • 0 avatar

            “The U.S. (at least on paper) does its own testing”

            No, it doesn’t. The EPA does spot checks for fuel economy ratings, but relies upon the automakers to self-report.

            All fuel economy tests in the US are outsourced. Of those, only some are verified. The fuel economy issues faced in recent years by Ford and Hyundai arose when class-action lawsuits filed by disgruntled owners prompted the EPA to verify the results.

  • avatar

    The biggest problem with his statements about a “misunderstanding” of the laws and the questions from regulatory agencies is that they weren’t just violating emissions laws in the United States. They were also violating emissions laws in their home country of Germany as well as the wider EU. There have also been reports of them running afoul of emissions laws with diesel vehicles in India and other non-western countries.

    So are we to believe that they are incapable of understanding laws regarding diesel emissions in any country of the world, including their own? But that they have no problems whatsoever correctly interpreting emissions laws for gasoline engines? And that (as was shown at the CCC conference in Germany the other week) that this “misunderstanding” only seemed to coincidentally take effect ONLY under conditions that exactly mimicked testing procedures?

    Only an imbecile would buy Mueller’s explanation. No doubt he’s trying to back away from the company’s earlier mea culpas in an effort to not undermine any potential legal defenses, but one has to wonder how far they will go in alienating their customers to try to save on fines.

    • 0 avatar

      I used to work for a German automotive supplier. They loved finding vague phrasing or different interpretations in regulations that allowed them to be technically correct (the best kind of correct!) with some legal cover if they got caught.

  • avatar

    I travel to Europe quite a bit, and have to speak with many foreigners in English. I think about jetlag and translation issues … I just can’t see it. If he is exhausted and jetlagged its unfair but as you say, he needs to be at the top of his game when facing the very audience he needs to acquiesce.

    On the issue of language, I read the NPR interview, and tried to see what language from the NPR reporter might be confusing. Generally, you really don’t want to use any idiomatic English with a non-speaker. The NPR reporter used only two such expressions (but I think they are immaterial):

    “NPR: People feel lied to, they feel like they’ve been had and all those things. There seems to be a difficulty in fixing that problem. How do you fix that problem? …”

    “people feel like they’ve been had” may be confusing to a non English speaker. And they may be a little bit confused about “and all that”.

    On the flip side, go anywhere in Germany, and you will be treated to a perferctly flawless conversation in English with nearly anyone and everyone, no matter their age. The only exception might be some older East Germans. Angela Merkel is a perfect example.

    VWs needs to appoint a different CEO, preferably an American for now at least. Someone who has dealt with regulators, crises, turnaround experts with a track record, and absolutely flawless in public statements and relations. An American would probably be most suited here, but need not be. It seems clear to me, it should definitely NOT be someone from within VW.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree that Mueller’s English is not very good, and he is not aware of this. Because I grew up in Germany, I can tell when someone is attempting to speak English by first forming a German sentence and then translating each word individually. When you combine that with evasiveness and half-truths, the result is the kind of garbled nonsense that Mueller produces.

    • 0 avatar
      87 Morgan

      Let’s ease up on the Jet Lag…Heir Muller is not crossing the pond riding coach on United.

      I am quite certain VAG owns at least one really nice Jet that he rides around the world that most likely has arrangements onboard for him to catch a comfortable nap.

      • 0 avatar

        Amen to that. Yeah I bet Herr Muller rides in a very nice Gulfstream or at least Lufthansa First Class. Jet lag my a$$! He sure to hell ain’t stuck in United or American deep-vein thrombosis class. Now equipped with non-reclining seats! Only the seat bottoms slide forward about an inch.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re taking Mueller’s remarks out of context. This is what he was asked and how he responded:

      NPR: You said this was a technical problem, but the American people feel this is not a technical problem, this is an ethical problem that’s deep inside the company. How do you change that perception in the U.S.?

      Matthias Mueller: Frankly spoken, it was a technical problem. We made a default, we had a … not the right interpretation of the American law. And we had some targets for our technical engineers, and they solved this problem and reached targets with some software solutions which haven’t been compatible to the American law. That is the thing. And the other question you mentioned — it was an ethical problem? I cannot understand why you say that.

      Mueller’s points:

      1. The issue was posited by the interviewer as an either/or choice of technical vs. ethical. Mueller was trying to say that it was not an ethical issue — “technical” is intended to convey that in a two-choice universe that the violation wasn’t intended to be unethical. In other words, “technical” in this context means “honest mistake.”

      2. He is claiming that VW engineers were attempting to achieve management targets and that US law was misinterpreted in the process.

      While I don’t think that this is an adequate or honest explanation — NOx defeat devices aren’t legal in the EU, either — he is also not saying what you think that he is saying.

  • avatar

    It is really pretty simple, vw cheated, maybe the test is unfair but they wanted to take the test so they did, they may have figured if we get caught we will pay a fine and be done with it, the US is a very small part of their business and they know in Europe they are to big to fail. What they are failing at is PR and I do not know if that is what they understand. Work out a solution and get the EPA off you back, say your sorry to your customers and let the news media find another story. Every car company has issues and recalls it is how it is handled that counts and everyone moves on.

  • avatar

    Based on some of the CEO’s I’ve dealt with my guess is that Mueller is so drunk on the VW Koolaid he doesn’t believe they did anything wrong. A specific number was required on a specific test so the engineers made it work, as instructed. So what is the problem? Everything is working as designed… just like our window regulators. Speaking of which, can I interest you in leasing a Jetta?

  • avatar

    Aaron – when are you going to wake up and spend 10 minutes learning the difference between CO2 emissions (mileage) and NOx emissions? Wikipedia can help.

    You’ve had four months to get it right and been consistently wrong. It’s really not acceptable.

    EPA and Carb are complaining about NOx, not mileage. Now write something that makes sense.

  • avatar

    I think the problem is that he was attempting to use English PR weasel speak (commonly used by corporations, lawyers, politicians and government) which uses a lot of words but is so ambiguous that the listener can hear what they want to hear. Unfortunately that does not work with the textbook English that he probably learned in school, and the results are worse than usual.

  • avatar

    Right: PR-speak aims to keep the mouth moving long enough that the reporter gets bored or has to cut away, without anything of substance being said. German engineers aren’t trained for that, thank goodness.

    BTW– This is a royal mess, but none of it lessens the pleasure I had from driving my Mk V GTI a hundred miles through the Rockies today, up to the ski hill. Powerful, quiet, smooth with excellent fuel economy and a fine stereo system, all
    in a six-year old car. “Disposable?” Not in my fleet!

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