Analyzing VW’s Endless Apology

Analyzing VW’s Endless Apology

Volkswagen’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, has the attention of the New York Times. That’ll happen when your company admits that 11 million or so of its cars around the world contain software that purposefully evades emission control tests. In the article, he is quoted as saying he is “endlessly sorry…” which must be a German expression. The CEO of Germanwings used the same phrase back in March following the deliberate crash of one its aircraft by a psychologically deranged pilot.

If you’ve read my past blog posts regarding apologies, you know I’m no fan of knee-jerk, shallow gesturing. Apologies are way overused these days, and should be employed only at the right time for the right reasons. Even then, there’s no guarantee they’ll diffuse an ugly situation. Case-in-point, several days ago, a couple of the hosts of the daytime talk show The View made fun of Miss Colorado’s talent-portion talk about the importance of nursing, and no amount of apology calmed that storm.

VW is in a hot mess, so shouldn’t they apologize? If they’d asked me, I would have recommended waiting to utter the words “endlessly sorry” until they had more information. A full investigation is yet to be complete, so they’ve put themselves in a position to have to repeat their apologies over and over from here on.

But, the apology is out, so now the more interesting question is, how VW will explain itself? To answer it, I’ll shift rhetorical gears from apology to apologia – the art of corporate reputation defense and use Keith Hearit’s apologia model as an analysis tool. Hearit’s model tells us that when a company’s reputation is in question the company can select at least one of three potential responses:

Option 1: Redefinition – this strategy of redefinition relies heavily on the use of dissociation; the messaging has to work to redefine the incompetent or immoral behavior as competent and moral. This option can be used when the facts of a situation are arguable or when the accusations are opinion-based. It’s the technique to use when allegations are justifiably deniable.

Option 2: Scapegoating – this strategy works by transferring guilt from an organization to an individual or isolated group; it’s a linguistic way to put distance between a brand and wrongdoers. This technique requires the company to acknowledge wrongdoing, but then shift blame onto ‘rogue’ individuals or groups of employees operating beyond the margins of the company’s stated values.

Option 3: Corrective Action – this strategy seeks to convince the public that the organization is responding to and has learned from its wrongdoing – and furthermore – has instituted controls to ensure the transgression won’t happen again. The technique involves communicating how the company is working furiously and quickly to make things right. This is the right technique to use when the variables involved in the incident are difficult to control. BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example; it was a massive upset complicated by a million variables, including the depth of the well-head, ocean currents and weather. One key to using this technique is that the company has to praise the rules it has broken in order to show it’s alignment with public expectations, then repeatedly express contrition and responsibility for its actions.

Our question is which of these defense methods is VW employing? To find out, lets go to the CEO’s own quotes as covered in the Times article:

Quote 1:

“Millions of people across the world trust our brands, our cars and our technologies…I am endlessly sorry that we have disappointed this trust. I apologize in every way to our customers, to authorities and the whole public for the wrongdoing.”
Analysis: Corrective Action – praising the social norm that has been broken.

Quote 2:

“We are asking, I am asking for your trust on our way forward,” he said. “We will clear this up.”
Analysis: Corrective Action – quickly trying to explain it’s going to make things right.

Quote 3:

“I do not have the answers to all the questions at this point myself, but we are in the process of clearing up the background relentlessly.”
Analysis: Pre-Scapegoating – I predict it’ll be full on scapegoating when VW reveals who installed the software and under what direction.

Quote 4:

“Let’s be clear about this. Our company was dishonest. With the EPA, and the California Air Resources Board, and with all of you. And in my German words, we have totally screwed up.”
Analysis: Corrective Action – Not much “indirectness” here as prescribed by Hearit’s model; Winterkorn bear-hugged the wrongdoing. That can be an effective way to show contrition along with norms alignment, but it also invites greater liability, so be careful.

Quote 5:

“Volkswagen has more than 600,000 employees…”building the best vehicles for our customers. It would be wrong to place the hard and honest work of 600,000 people under general suspicion because of the grave mistakes of a few.”
Analysis: Scapegoating – somebody done somebody wrong, but not everybody. Stand by for more on this front. A few people are about to get thrown under a VW bus in the not-too-distant future.

It remains to be seen how quickly Winterkorn’s rhetorical work calms the coverage for VW. What we know in the moment is that the company has more work to do in order to restore itself, but this brief analysis shows they’re already trying to move down the road.