VW’s high voltage PR dud

Two vintage VW buses colliding

Before I saddle up my high horse, let me say for the record that I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor. In fact, when I was interviewed a few years ago for podcast on PR, I was asked which company’s public relations work I admired. I immediately cited WestJet, a Canadian airline on which I have never actually flown. But what I liked about the company was its irreverence and ability to have a bit of fun in an otherwise serious business.

I’m referring to its annual April Fool’s Day spoofs, mostly straightlaced videos with “wait, they can’t be serious” news about their business. There was its “child-free cabins” in 2012 that showed relaxed parents comfortably in their seats as their kids made their way up the cargo ramp in “travel toboggans” where they’d eventually be stowed with the luggage.

Then two years ago, WestJet hit the social media airwaves with the announcement of “Flyre Festival,” a high-altitude party featuring a bevy of social media influencers, DJs, models and cute pigs posing as emotional support animals.   

By now, we can see the April Fool’s tag line coming from a mile away, but we enjoy it just the same. We’re in on the joke, especially since so many of these installments are so over the top.

But let’s make careful note of what WestJet did not do: It did not send out a news release claiming any of these publicity stunts were true. Not even with an asterisk that delivered the April Fool’s coda at the bottom of the page. Nor did it lie later to claim that, yes, in fact, those promotions are legit.

Doing so would have crossed the line. It’s one thing to use its own platforms to have some harmless fun, especially in a way consistent with its charismatic brand. It’s quite another to push out untruths via traditional news media.

And yet, that is exactly what Volkswagen of America has done in sending out an ostensibly serious news release announcing that it was changing the brand name of its U.S. subsidiary to Voltswagen, a move meant to underscore the automaker’s commitment to a new generation of electric vehicles.

I’ve worked for two Fortune 500 corporations in my career, and I can just picture the reaction from Volkswagen’s PR team when the intrepid marketing folks informed them of this deceptive gimmick. If I’m right, they would have reacted much like the führer did in this famous bunker scene from the movie “Downfall.” In other words, with a great deal of spirited pushback.

At least I would hope so. Public relations professionals understand that our relationship with the news media is built on trust and credibility. Reporters count on us to provide accurate and timely information, and we expect in return balanced and fair reporting. By sending out a blatantly false news release, Volkswagen has undercut that relationship in a most cynical fashion.

It’s bad enough to set about manipulating the news media for your own promotional purposes, but after the fake news release hit the street, engendering speculation that this could, in fact, be some kind of early April Fool’s Day ploy, Volkswagen went all in by issuing a statement confirming the brand switch and providing additional rationale for the change. To wit: the new name “symbolizes the highly charged forward momentum Voltswagen has put in motion.” Sounds serious.

Now the company is saying that it “didn’t mean to mislead anyone,” as reported by The Wall Street Journal. An objective observer might reasonably conclude just the opposite. After all, it’s not like VW has a history of such hijinks.  

Remember, all this is brought to you by a company that has been in reputation-repair mode over the past several years, following revelations that VW had rigged the emissions devices on millions of its cars, shielding the fact that its diesel engines produced emissions that were 40 times higher than what U.S. regulations allow.

The media has been under intense scrutiny over the past few years over allegations of creating fake news, allegations that I personally believe are well short on credibility. And now, here is a corporate citizen blurring the line between truth and lies.

Marketing practitioners have a great many promotional tools at their disposal. But let’s all agree that spurious news releases posing as real news should not be among them. If it gets to that point, sign me up for an emotional support pig.

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Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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