Volkswagen Skids Off the Road

Thom Weidlich 04.01.21


Happy April Fools’ Day! Fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Volkswagen manufactured what it thought was a sleek marketing vehicle but it turns out to be a lemon. And it did this just years after creating one of the worst crises in recent memory, namely, the emissions scandal.

On Monday, the German carmaker appeared to fumble by prematurely publishing a press release announcing it would change the name of its Herndon, Virginia-based U.S. operation from Volkswagen to “Voltswagen.”

The release, dated April 29 but posted March 29, had yet-to-be-filled-in spaces and appeared to be bona fide if a month early. Volkswagen is promoting its first all-electric SUV, the ID.4. It issued a new logo for the new company name. “We might be changing out our K for a T, but what we aren’t changing is this brand’s commitment to making best-in-class vehicles,” the release quoted “Voltswagen of America” President and CEO Scott Keogh.

Volkswagen quickly took down the statement, contributing to the belief it was real. Reporters called the company and confirmed it wasn’t an April Fools’ Day scam, something journalists are leery of this time of year. Outlets that reported the name change included the Associated Press, Reuters, CNBC, The Washington Post, USA Today and the Daily Mail.

New Moniker

Then, on Tuesday, Volkswagen posted the release officially — after all, the new moniker was out of the bag. But later that day, outlets began to report that the release was in fact a PR trick. Volkswagen of America Acting Head of Communications Mark Gillies was cited as a person who confirmed both that the name switch was genuine and then that it was a joke.

For some reason, journos were not amused.

“Reporters from trusted outlets such as the Associated Press are furious at having been lied to by VW and made to look foolish,” Chris Bryant wrote on Bloomberg.


Reporters from trusted outlets such as the Associated Press are furious at having been lied to by VW and made to look foolish.

— Chris Bryant, Bloomberg 

“We have corrected our story and published a new one based on the company’s admission,” AP reporter David Bauder quoted an AP spokeswoman. “This and any deliberate release of false information hurts accurate journalism and the public good.”

USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey was more pungent. “Dear Volkswagen: You lied to me,” he tweeted. “Why should anyone trust you again?”

Contain Hints

False April Fools’ Day press releases are annoying but not unknown. Usually they contain hints that it’s all a joke. Hah, hah. The VW hoax was reminiscent of IHOP’s campaign in 2018 in which it announced a name change to IHOB — the “b” for “burgers.” But while that effort enjoyed some blowback, IHOP actually did temporarily change the signage on some of its stores. It wasn’t a complete lie.

And the VW incident may not be all fun and galled reporters. On Tuesday, after the second publication of the press release, VW’s American depositary receipts (certificates representing shares in foreign stock) rose as much as 12 percent before falling after the ruse was revealed. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission may be interested.

The lesson on this one is pretty simple: Think before you act. This should have been especially clear to Volkswagen, which in 2015 was found to be lying about the extent of its diesel emissions. That has cost much harm to its reputation, in addition to criminal convictions and more than $30 billion in various costs. At least it sort of apologized for this latest debacle, yet even on that its messages are mixed.

You would think the company would have learned something about the importance of being truthful.

Image Credit: Volkswagen

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter on crisis communications. Each week we highlight a crisis story in the news or a survey or study with an eye toward the type of best practices and strategies you can put to work each day. Click here to subscribe.

Related:Fictional Case Study Spotlights Crisis-Response ProcessIHOP Risks Being Flattened Like a Pancake Over Name Change