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Storytelling advice for Volkswagen

By Dan McDonough, Jr.

The best way out is always through. That was the advice of the optimist Len in Robert Frost’s poem “A Servant to Servants.”

That’s my advice to Volkswagen.

The media hasn’t been gentle since the U.S. EPA recently found the automaker used clever software to game its emissions testing. Volkswagen needs to counter with the kind of story that will get the company through this self-inflicted mess. It starts with admission and contrition. It ends with a continuing commitment. To a degree, the first part has already happened.

“The Board of Management at Volkswagen AG takes these findings very seriously,” recently dethroned CEO Martin Winterkorn said shortly after the revelation. “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public.”

Winterkorn’s admission, and the board’s acceptance of his speedy resignation, set the stage for consumers to listen for what would come next. Getting your audience to take you seriously is serious business. It doesn’t come easily. Volkswagen has successfully gotten our ears. But there’s a limited horizon, as with any story, to hold our attention. What comes next is critical, and needs to come quickly.

The company said it will pull together an independent investigation. That’s a start. But, as Alter Agents Partner Rebecca Brooks recently wrote  for, Volkswagen needs to tell its story with definitive and quick actions in a fresh and new way:

So what is VW to do now? Textbook protocols for corporate crises simply don’t apply. The Tylenol scare in the 1970s is usually the model for this situation, except in that infamous case it was an unknown perpetrator who poisoned the pill bottles. In this case, the perps are known to have been VW employees — we just don’t know their names yet. Even the various scandals in the investment-banking industry, where rogue employees lost billions of dollars of somebody else’s money, don’t seem to fit. This was no lone-wolf act — it took an entire village to carry out the malfeasance.

Brooks goes on to outline how Volkswagen should offer to buy these cars back from consumers, set up a fund to combat the pollution these cars caused, protect its dealers from the economic hardships this action will cause them, and hire an ombudsman from the outside to make sure this is being handled transparently and decisively. That’s good advice, and will tell a story, through actions, that Volkswagen is committed to the right ideals and to regaining consumer trust.

The best way to tell the story of redemption — to be the hero of this unfolding story — is to think like the audience would think. Walt Barron, who heads strategy at McKinney, wrote specifically about this in an article on about empathy: “While it’s easier to understand the people you’re trying to reach, it’s harder to feel what they feel. That requires putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

That also requires being vulnerable. It’s impossible to be the hero in your own redemption story if you don’t open yourself to judgment and criticism. That’s the final test for Volkswagen — whether it’s strong enough to allow itself to be weak.

“We at Volkswagen will do everything that must be done in order to re-establish the trust that so many people have placed in us, and we will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused,” Winterkorn said shortly after the news broke. “The trust of our customers and the public is and continues to be our most important asset.”

Trust isn’t just important to Volkswagen. It isn’t just important to automakers. It’s important to every business. And the only way to build, or regain, trust is to connect with your audience on an emotional level.

Dan McDonough is a founding partner at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StoryGuide, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.