I thought a short update on the continuing VW’s crisis was in order in the wake of CEO Martin Winterkorn’s resignation. In my opening note on the subject, I used Dr. Keith Hearit’s apologia model to analyze the quotes Winterkorn delivered when he admitted the company had deliberately manipulated vehicle emissions tests to show its diesel cars were cleaner burning than in actuality. In that analysis, it was easy to see that most of the words were oriented toward a “corrective action” narrative. Because a few shadows of scapegoating were also present, I predicted that the scapegoating technique – a rhetorical maneuver to isolate one or more bad actors in order to distance a company’s reputation from wrong doers within – would come into play in short order. Even though I’m glad my predictive powers are working, I’ll have to admit, the search for the scapegoat has ramped up harder and hotter than I expected.
Often, companies in a fix quickly draw on “corrective action” rhetoric and stick with it until their own investigations uncover evidence with which they can clearly ID and publicly crucify a scapegoat. That process is underway but even if the investigation reveals a systemic cancer, VW is already showing signs that its convinced the scandal is hardly possible within its culture.
New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki put it this way, “The centrality of Volkswagen’s deceptive promise to its marketing strategy in the United States is precisely why the stock market’s reaction to the scandal has been so dramatic.” But when news of the scandal broke, Winterkorn himself set up the conditions for the scapegoat’s arrival by saying, “We do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law.” In other words, the situation is not central to VW’s culture. We’ll likely see a combination of both individual and systemic collusion as the facts begin to present themselves, but for now, it’s interesting to watch the scapegoating language set up announcements yet to be made.
A couple of sources I’ve looked at say that a guy named William Tyndale gets the credit for inventing the word scapegoat way back in 1530 when he was working on a translation of the Bible from Hebrew. Ironically, according to those sources, Tyndale misinterpreted the Hebrew and the result was the creation of the idea “the goat that departs.” In ceremonies in those times, a goat was driven into the wilderness to perish during the Day of Atonement to symbolically carry everyone’s sins with it.
Well, atonement is nigh for VW, but a change at the top along with what are sure to be huge fines aren’t likely to end of the matter. Someone – VW’s scapegoat – is going to have to be driven into the wilderness before VW is able to begin restoring its reputation. I’m guessing they’ll use a vehicle that doesn’t burn diesel.