Few things in PR are harder than getting reporters and their outlets to admit they've screwed up. And I don't just mean when it comes to reporting on issues that are admittedly open to interpretation, such as whether the CEO really was "fired" (their choice) or "stepped down to pursue other interests" (the client's preference). Wrangling a printed correction or clarification or even a verbal "oops" over the phone for any mistake at times seems more challenging than selling Soldier of Fortune subscriptions to Quakers.
To be fair, the earlier cover story wasn’t a total puff piece. The magazine did include commentary from ad industry execs who accurately foresaw the marriage of VW and CP+B as an ominous one. Peter M. DeLorenzo, publisher of Autoextremist.com, was quoted saying that Kerri Martin (VW's "director of brand innovation") and CP+B "would destroy the brand in the U.S. once and for all" if they weren't stopped. BW also noted that Advertising Age pulled no punches its review CP+B’s first ad, writing that it was "so horrendously awful that it smoothes the way for VW's quick and complete withdrawal from the American market."
As it turned out, BW should have given the detractors a tad more ink because they were right on the money. VW’s sales last year slid to 235,000 compared to 338,000 in 2002. Hindsight, what a wonderful thing.
Very much to its credit, BusinessWeek makes clear in its latest VW story that the exuberant vibe that ran through its May 2006 cover story was a bit premature and that its reporting could have benefited from a lengthier "to be sure" paragraph of cautionary insights. And it reminded readers of its earlier cover story. I wonder how many publications would have chosen to simply ignore VW’s current plight had they earlier published a similarly ill-judged cover story about the company’s turnaround efforts. I admire and respect BW’s integrity, which is why I’ve long been a long and devoted reader.
Reading the two BW stories side by side, there is a clear lesson to be learned from VW’s mistakes – and no, I don’t only mean the questionable decision to use a thick-accented, bleached blonde, dominatrix-type named Helga and an equally over-the-top German Engineer named Wolfgang to sell economically priced compacts.
It’s about overemphasizing image and style over “delivering the goods.” It’s about thinking that clever gimmicks, big marketing budgets, and slick ads are enough to make the silk purse from the sow’s ear and, if need be, make the sow’s ear as well. It’s about the dangers of putting all the PR, advertising and marketing eggs in any one basket, and entrusting it to someone (or some functional group) who doesn't know nearly enough about the multiple disciplines to keep a steady grip. Typically, it’s the Almighty Grand Poobah Brand Manager who gets that gig.
At VW, it was the "hot" advertising agency that seemed to be entrusted with the brand basket. It was CP+B that talked VW into recasting the redesigned VW Golf as the VW Rabbit, a brand that hadn't been used in 20 years (possibly, just possibly, because it was a problem-plagued car that frequently broke down or caught fire). CP+B, by the way, is the same organization that believes good advertising "is anything that makes our clients famous" and responded to criticisms of its strategy by saying "I like that they are talking about the work. If they aren't talking, then your brand is dead." (There’s just so much wrong with those statements, but I’ll leave it for another day.)
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that CP+B is totally to blame for VW’s continued failure to launch. After all, VW was not exactly at the top of its competitive game when the agency was hired and the products they were asked to support are as lackluster as ever (there’s just so much lipstick you can put on a pig). And someone back in VW Marketing had to be signing off on those proposed storyboards, right? I guess that would have been Kerri Martin, the person who brought the ad guys in. She was shown the door six months after BW’s cover story.
If VW truly wants to make a go of its U.S. operations, it needs to start with making better cars, ones that aren’t ranked by J.D. Power & Associates in the bottom 20% of automakers for reliability, quality, and service.
In the interim, save the ad dollars and stick those leftover “Drivers Wanted" signs in the front window of U.S. corporate headquarters. Hey, it worked for the Chinese restaurant down the street.
Eric Starkman is President of Starkman & Associates, a full service public and investor relations firm based in New York City. Prior to a career in PR, he was a journalist with several major newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. The firm has a strong crisis communications practice, having worked with numerous organizations and high-profile individuals to manage and mitigate the reputational damage of real and perceived communications crises.
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