The emissions scandal engulfing Volkswagen raises many important questions.

While I can't claim "how does Volkswagen deal with this on social media?" is the most pressing of them, I thought it would be worthwhile having a look at the company's reaction on Twitter and Facebook to see if there's a protocol for crisis management on social media.

When things are at their worst, marketing doesn't help

Volkswagen USA sensibly stopped posting to Facebook and Twitter on Friday 18th September, the day the emissions scandal broke from the US.

The accounts were dark for a whole week until they posted a statement from Michael Horn, the US CEO who is expected to resign.

The global VW Twitter account though did not cease BAU posting until September 22nd and arguably this created more tension.

See the post and comment below for the sort of undercutting the brand has to expect from consumers across all marketing (which is now being scaled back). 

Volkswagen criticism on social media

A speedy response avoids accusations of selective hearing

Until September 27th, when Volkswagen launched http://vwdieselinfo.com, the only VW accounts that were trying to provide more information were Volkswagen UK Twitter and Facebook.

This was chiefly directing customers to Volkswagen's news pages, which had scant information at this early stage.

Elsewhere, from the US and global social media accounts, VW's silence was pronounced, with video apologies from respective CEOs the only posts addressing the crisis in more than a week.

The global Twitter account itself seems only to be used to broadcast - it has never once replied to a tweet, only posted. This isn't ideal.

However on September 27th, Volkswagen did get its FAQ page up and running, which was a fairly quick turnaround, given the scale of the investigation. It doesn’t matter if this FAQ page is short on resolutions to begin with, VW had to make clear what is being considered, what timescales are involved, what does it mean for diesel owners?

Volkswagen's own websites need to be updated regularly not simply responding through the mainstream media.

Giving out contact details also has to be done with precision. VW is now directing customers to a customer care phone number and email address, rather than local dealerships. The company has to be sure it does not lead customers down a blind alley before the answers they need are available.

Volkswagen diesel faq website

It's difficult to cope with such a volume of comments

Consumers have, of course, been inundating Volkswagen on social. The comments I have read highlight three concerns. Plenty of customers are claiming they can no longer trust any of VW’s specifications, sales staff are asking how the scandal will hit their livelihood, and other customers are highlighting the implications to health of so many VWs on the road with higher emissions than previously thought.

The new dedicated website is now assuaging some of the questions but the past week has highlighted the tightrope walk of crisis management on social media.

Silence is actually visible, even after an apology has been made. It’s common practice in community management to let people vent anger (i.e. where a brand response would only exacerbate the ill-will) and in this case VW probably isn't able to respond to all of these comments anyway.

However, I'm surprised that more comments haven't been replied to on the US and global social accounts. With the accounts only active during business hours over the first week of the crisis, it may have been advisable to have out-of-hours support and reply to comments where appropriate.

volkswagen complaint on Facebook

It's important that internal communications are well-oiled

In such a big company, especially when dealerships are included, frustrated staff may turn to the company social profiles if they feel they are not getting answers quick enough from within the organisation. This highlights the need for swift internal communications to try to reduce the level of disquiet online.

It’s also important that those on the front line of sales and service can present a united, remorseful but helpful front, satiating the consumer desire for answers in branch, rather than in the public domain on social media.

Tweet to VW 

It takes a lot to destroy a consumer-facing brand of 70 years

Though this scandal has already had enormous impact on Volkswagen’s share price (down from 165ish to 106 when the story broke) and big fines and loss of sales are to be expected, social media can perhaps add some perspective.

Looking at Facebook comments in particular, there are plenty of VW supporters and loyal customers pledging their allegiance. Many state their love for Volkswagen in spite of this scandal and some disappointed customers are giving the car manufacturer the grace to put things right.

volkswagen advocate on social

volkswagen fan on Facebook

Brand advocates will save VW time and money in a crisis by helping to firefight online (or at least distract the outraged).

Ben Davis

Published 29 September, 2015 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (2)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

VW will soon be facing massive lawsuits over this, and everyone who's been faced with legal action (justified or not) knows that corporate lawyers advise you to keep your mouth shut.

I think their social media staff must be under pressure to say as little as possible, hence the lack of online engagement and support.

over 2 years ago

Steve Pannett

Steve Pannett, Senior Designer at three sixty

From a creative/marketing POV it will be really interesting to see what approach VW take when they restart their marketing (mainstream and otherwise) – will they re-emerge softly-softly or will they pin their focus on something else (safety, lifestyle) and avoid talking about emissions altogether?

Would also be interesting to see a comparison between how VW are dealing with this (on social media), how Tesco dealt with horse-based lasagna/over-stated profits and how BP managed the Deepwater Horizon spill. Three big organisations, three big crises – what did they do differently and who handled it best?

over 2 years ago

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