VW Deepens Diesel-Scandal Woes With Denials, Confrontation, Muddled Messages

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Volkswagen logo

Volkswagen logo

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By this point, the principles of corporate crisis-management communications are pretty well established.

A company with a looming PR catastrophe needs to respond immediately, keep one trustworthy and high-level executive in front of the cameras, repeatedly promise the company will make good, and communicate early and often with affected consumers.

Volkswagen's German headquarters has done few of those things in the four months since the diesel-emission cheating scandal exploded into the world's media on September 18.

DON'T MISS: How Will VW Fix My Diesel Car, And When? A List Of All Models (Oct 2015)

It's not much written about--save for a piece in England's Financial Times and a few others--but VW's communications gaffes are often quietly discussed among business and automotive journalists.

The FT article lays out "a series of communications errors during its near three-month-old emissions scandal that experts say has deeply hurt VW."

“VW is taking every opportunity to compound its troubles with U.S. regulators and the damage to its image with U.S. consumers," says Professor Erik Gordon of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business in the article.

Matthias Müller

Matthias Müller

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Botched CEO interview

Take, for example, the catastrophic interview earlier this week by VW Group's CEO, Matthias Müller, in the media scrum after a Sunday night presentation during Detroit Auto Show week.

As National Public Radio notes, with accompanying audio, Müller responded to a question about VW employees lying to U.S. EPA regulators by denying that the company had, in fact, lied.

"We didn't lie," Müller claimed. "We didn't understand the question first. And then we worked since 2014 to solve the problem."

Given that the EPA only went public in September after Volkswagen employees had admitted to the agency that the company had deliberately deceived it for years, Müller's statement startled reporters, to say the least.

And it overshadowed his prepared statement, in which he said, "We all know that we have let down customers, authorities, regulators and the general public here in America, too."

"We are — I am — truly sorry for that," Müller added, "and I would like to apologize once again for what went wrong with Volkswagen."

2009 vw jetta tdi 002

2009 vw jetta tdi 002

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Asking for a do-over

In NPR's words, after the interview aired on Monday, "Volkswagen approached NPR, asking for a do-over of sorts, another conversation with the CEO."

"The situation was a little bit difficult for me to handle in front of all these colleagues of yours," Müller explained, "and everybody shouting."

He went on to say, "we fully accept the violation. There is no doubt about it."

"We have to accept that the problem was not created three months ago," he added. "It was created, let me say, 10 years ago."

The scrum aside, Müller remained largely off-limits to media during the Detroit show, as several outlets noted, forgoing the customary sit-downs with reporters from major outlets.

But his botched interview hardly stands in isolation.

Volkswagen Plant, Wolfsburg, Germany (photo by Richard Bartz)

Volkswagen Plant, Wolfsburg, Germany (photo by Richard Bartz)

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Refusing document requests

Last week, Volkswagen AG refused to turn over emails or other executive communications to attorneys general in the United States, according to The New York Times.

It cited strict German privacy laws in its refusals, which did not go over well with the various states investigating the diesel cheating scandal and its effect on car buyers.

“Our patience with Volkswagen is wearing thin,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, New York state's attorney general.

He suggested that VW's "spotty" cooperation was "more of the kind one expects from a company in denial than one seeking to leave behind a culture of admitted deception.”

Other states' attorneys general echoed the same theme.

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