Who would’ve guessed a PR stunt based on lies could backfire for a company trying to regain people’s trust?
For better or worse, certain corners of the auto industry take part in the annual tradition of April Fools’ Day. We roll our eyes and report on the stories that flood news feeds on April 1, knowing full well that each one comes with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink from the PR flacks who planned this year’s nonsense. But this year, Volkswagen took April Fools too far.
For those lucky enough not to hear about this, on the afternoon of March 29, USA Today published a report that claimed Volkswagen was changing its name to “Voltswagen” after a press release, dated April 29, appeared briefly on VW of America’s media page. USA Today reached out to a VW spokesman who declined to comment, although the outlet did speak to an anonymous source who confirmed the release was not a joke. I immediately reached out to two sources at Volkswagen of America – one offered a “no comment” while the other confirmed the news off the record.
On Tuesday, VW made its move, changing logos, updating Twitter handles, and issuing an actual press release with comments from VWoA President and CEO Scott Keogh confirming the switch would officially happen in May 2021. The press release looked and sounded and official – no nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Motor1.com, like nearly every other news outlet, swallowed the bait. We were wrong.
There is an argument to be made that this was all a mistake, that Volkswagen accidentally published the release early instead of on April 1, and simply botched its recovery from that mistake.
But if I wanted to completely hoodwink the media, I’d do exactly what happened here: publish the release and wait until someone big picked up the story, then pull the release down to make it look like a mistake, knowing nothing stokes the fires of the blogosphere like an “accidental” leak on the part of the automaker. I’d confirm the news repeatedly to anyone who reached out for comment. Then I’d sit back and watch.
Where in past years eating the onion would result in nothing more than some good-natured ribbing from colleagues and friends on Car Twitter, Volkswagen’s stunt has landed differently. After four years of battling fake news, we found the company’s decision to mislead the press in service of its joke tone deaf. The reactions on Twitter have been equal parts swift and cutting.
*Volkswagen's sense of humor was fitted with a defeat device.— Brendan McAleer (@brendan_mcaleer) March 30, 2021
This rings about as tinny as Martin Winterkorn issuing a statement in Sept. 2015 saying... "Oh, we weren't serious! It vas just a JOKE! SEE? WE ALL LAUGH!! HAHAHA!"— Larry P. Vellequette (@LarryVellequett) March 30, 2021
Not cool. And bad form. https://t.co/DOhpcgHFNf
Dear #brands: you've now officially lost your April Fools day privileges.— Tim Stevens (@Tim_Stevens) March 30, 2021
Seriously, you had your chance. You blew it. It's done.
Dear Volkswagen: You lied to me. You lied to AP, CNBC, Reuters and various trade pubs. This was not a joke. It was deception. In case you hadn’t noticed, we have a misinformation problem in this country. Now you’re part of it. Why should anyone trust you again? https://t.co/1rcKT7p0u5— Nathan Bomey (@NathanBomey) March 30, 2021
Volkswagen PR’s idea of an april fool’s prank is just “lying in march,” incredible work— mack (@MacklinHogan) March 30, 2021
It's worth noting that @MikeWayland, @NathanBomey, @LarryVellequett & the others who reported this are all honest, talented professionals.— Michael Martinez (@MikeMartinez_AN) March 30, 2021
Apparently the same can't be said of some in VW PR. Shame on them. https://t.co/zc7lwlxbEs
This entire episode really irked me. Not because we (Motor1.com and the broader sphere of automotive media) bought into the joke, but because so much of it was based on spokespeople that we used to trust outright lying. Volkswagen as a company has been fighting to regain the trust of the public and rehabilitate its image after the diesel emissions scandal, and up until now, it’d been doing well. I adored the ID.4 when I drove it and have been excited by the prospects of electric VWs ever since.
This stunt is a black mark on Volkswagen’s progress. And while it’s easy to look at what’s been written here as virtue signaling in the name of honesty and the sanctity of journalism, Volkswagen’s decision to mislead the media and the public (again, one could argue) had actual consequences beyond our little corner of the internet.
VW stock was up 4.7% today and at least one analyst put a note out about the name change https://t.co/avJTYehlW7— davidshepardson (@davidshepardson) March 30, 2021
The company’s share price opened on Monday morning at $33.13. By 3:00PM on Tuesday, it was up past $38. As the above tweet notes, one market analyst even issued a note about the name change. Jokes stop being jokes when they have real-world consequences, and it’s very clear based on a quick look at share prices that Volkswagen of America’s deception has had very real consequences.
I’m going to leave you with one last tweet over VW’s latest controversy from Automotive News’ Nick Bunkley:
All future VW press releases should be subject to a 3-day waiting period before any news organization reports them as fact. https://t.co/5dgqNNiBFe— Nick Bunkley (@nickbunkley) March 30, 2021
On March 31, Volkswagen shared a non-apology on social media as if this is still some big joke rather than an enormous public relations misstep. But to cite one internet meme, when the joke is done, the person pranked should be laughing too. For every great April Fools’ joke, there are 10 bad ones. But there’s never been a single one that’s damaged the trust the media has in a company’s word. Until now.