This is my third in what is turning out to be a series of posts regarding Volkswagen and its emissions defeat device scandal. I’ve been focusing my analysis on a single question: “How is VW explaining itself?” and probing into the company’s defense rhetoric – known as apologia. Although others exist, I’ve been using a model developed by Dr. Keith Hearit as my analysis tool for this case. If you geek out on rhetorical maneuvering like I do, then you can find Hearit’s model in an article entitled, “Mistakes Were Made…” published in the Spring 1995 edition of Communication Studies.
To quickly recap, VW – according to Hearit’s model – has three rhetorical choices: redefinition, scapegoating and/or corrective action.
With the former CEO, Martin Winterkorn, falling on his sword very soon after the scandal broke, we might be tempted to say to ourselves, “Well there you have it. It was the CEO’s fault – he’s the scapegoat.” That would be a logical conclusion, except that Winterkorn wrapped himself in protective language by saying, “I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrong doing on my part.” He essentially said, “It wasn’t’ me! Keep looking for the real scapegoat…”
I predicted a few weeks ago that others would have to be turned into the permanent scapegoats in order to resolve the rhetorical demand, and the event appeared to come to pass on September 24. That day, the research and development chiefs of Audi and Porsche, Ulrich Hackenberg and Wolfgang Hatz, as well as VW’s top executive in the U.S., Michael Horn got thrown under the microbus and showed the door. Horn is the exec that said the company had, “totally screwed up.” It’s probably a quote he wishes he could take back, but as the saying goes, the toothpaste was out of the tube.
Again, it’d be logical to assume that those guys would end up being this scandal’s official scapegoats not because they did anything wrong themselves, but because they fulfill the rhetorical requirement. This is a semiotic event, and scapegoats are symbols. Even though Hackenberg, Hatz and Horn may be without direct fault, VW has driven them into the proverbial wilderness to carry, and atone for, the company’s sin. But wait, there’s more.
Yesterday, Michael Horn got hauled up in front of a congressional panel and grilled for about two hours. He called the situation “deeply troubling” but pushed back against accusations that Volkswagen has a pervasive culture of corruption, saying it does “not reflect the company that I know.” OK – that rhetoric is a setup for scapegoating. He distanced the company from the wrongdoers yet to be named – and then – as if on cue, delivered a profile of them up. He said rogue German software engineers were likely to blame and that their motivation may have been an effort to meet cost measures.
With that statement, the storyline now turns away from finding a scapegoat to hunting for perpetrators. The question now is whether the scandal was caused by immorality or managerial incompetence, which really, is the question at the heart of all kategoria (accusation rhetoric), apologia (defense rhetoric) and antapologia (counter accusation). VW’s issues almost certainly stem from the former – somebody deliberately cheated. Interestingly, though, its ability to restore consumer confidence and brand reputation is going to depend on avoiding the latter as they navigate the remainder of this crisis.