When Your Brand Trust (and your airbag) Blows Up in Your Face

The automotive industry has been experiencing a rather bumpy ride lately. The Takata airbag debacle, you know—where shards of hot, metal shrapnel come flying out into the passenger compartment of an accident vehicle, the Volkswagen gas mileage manipulation and the deadly Chevrolet Cobalt, which, by all rights, should probably have just been marketed as the “Chevrolet Coffin.”

It’s enough to make one take public transportation and, while doing so, ask just what the hell is going on here? There hasn’t been this much negative publicity for car manufacturers since the “explosive” Ford Pinto of the 1970s. Are these isolated cases of established brands resting on their laurels, deliberate negligence, high-level corporate conspiracies, cost-cutting at the expense of human life or a case of no one of any competence minding the shop?

The truth is, we may never know exactly what is behind this recent spate of seemingly contagious automotive unraveling, but, whatever the contributing factors may be, one thing is painfully clear: public confidence in the affected brands: principally Honda and Toyota, VW/Audi, and GM (has anyone actually had confidence in GM since it stopped producing the Bel Air anyway?) has eroded to a significant degree. That translates into sales dropping. That translates into an automotive shit-sandwich.

So, what is a poor corporation (large or small) or non-profit to do when it has been uncovered that there are ne’er-do-wells in the executive suite, or in the basement, contributing to the production of inferior or just plain dangerous products? Here are some tips:

  • Do what you must do legally (as in, cooperate with investigators). You’re in enough trouble without shredding compromising documents, deleting emails (sound familiar?) and otherwise continuing to cook the books. It’s out. You’re fucked. Deal with it.
  • While on that subject, be as transparent as humanly possible. Gone are the days when you could stand before a bunch of microphones and cameras and say things like, “We have no comment at this time” and “We are looking into it” or “There are unfounded allegations of potentially possible wrongdoing that may or may not have taken place that are currently being reviewed and we will maybe update you at a much later time once we have pulled together a somewhat plausible and least-laughable cover story.” Get out there, tell the truth (you’ll know it’s true because it’ll hurt to say it) and take your punches. If you tell the story, then there will be no story for the media to dig up.
  • Speaking of telling the story: the person telling it shouldn’t be a company spokesperson, or an Executive Vice-President of Marketing, or some other anonymous schmoe who has the misfortune to draw the short straw. It should be the Chief Executive Officer, the BBM or BBW (Big Boss Man/Woman).
  • Start firing people. Scandals like this don’t just happen, they happen because people make them happen. Chances are, you probably already know who did what. Why wait a year before some paper-pushing government entity figures out what you already know? Fire away. And, if you’re the one who did something wrong: fire yourself.
  • Get right with God: No, not actual wings-in-the-sky God, your For any organization or company, your God is your consumers. They determine whether you live or you die. So? Prostrate yourself before them, fall to your knees and weep. Beg for their forgiveness. If you don’t earn that, they can very easily go from VW owners to Volvo owners. Besides, Volvo seats are better anyway.
  • Think integrity. Sound the alarm to your H.R. director, his or her underlings and to your recruiters: the number one criteria for all hiring decisions must be integrity. If there is something even remotely fishy in Denmark about a job applicant, no matter if they are cleaning the bathroom floor or using the Executive Washroom, move right along to the next candidate.