October 21, 2015

How to avoid a social media disaster after a big blunder: The Volkswagen case

It will probably cost a lot of effort and money to Volkswagen to regain its position as leading and reliable top class automaker in the world markets. The diesel emissions manipulation scandal will probably forever be a dark page in the company’s history. But amid the doom and gloom, the resignations of top executives, the lawsuits, the recalls of millions of cars and the congress hearings Volkswagen has brilliantly managed to avoid a social media disaster: A “shitstorm” as they call in Germany a social media customer or public attack. Such public attacks have been quite common the last years and companies like P&G, Nike, Primarkt, McDonnalds, Uniter Ailines, Gap, IKEA, Nestle’, Cryptonite and many others have experienced firsthand how powerful the new consumer is, armed with the social media. All these companies were attacked by blog swarms or negative posts in social media for all kinds of reasons.
While bad publicity is nothing new in the world, businesses in the past could contain reputation problems using PR in combination with mass publicity in various media channels under their control. But with social media customer attacks things are different, not only because of the fast dispersion of such attacks, sometimes in global scale and the ferocity of such attacks but because of the fact that containment is notoriously difficult.

While in the past companies have suffered serious reputation damage trying to deal with social media attacks the old fashion way, things seem to rapidly  change. Social media customer attacks have forced many businesses to develop contingency plans for online reputation damage and professionalize their community management methods. Reputation or Community Manager, a management function that did not even exist five years ago is today a common place in most large and medium size businesses. Volkswagen must have very good social media damage control plans or reputation managers if we look to the facts: The business disaster of emission level manipulation di not become a social media disaster, something very obvious if we look to the picture above illustrating the volume and the sentiment of the social media posts around the case (data based on COOSTO data monitoring). A sharp increase in posts and high negative sentiment in social media posts from the date the scandal was revealed (around 21 of September) followed by a sharp decrease after the US Volkwagen boss Michael Hom offered his public apologies without any efforts to hide or undermine the case and even admitting that Volkswagen “totally screwed up” while the VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn issued an apology saying he was "endlessly sorry" for the "manipulation". (http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34322668 ). With such statements VW removed all ammunition from customers who would take their frustrations to online comments that would probably have a snowball effect in the social space, causing a difficult to reverse reputation damage. Transparency and honest apologies help therefore more than old fashion professional publicity and denial of wrongdoing, something many of the earlier mentioned victims of customer attacks did.