BBC business editor Kamal Ahmed: Volkswagen's problem is it 'doesn't speak human'

Volkswagen is failing in its crisis comms strategy because it doesn't "speak human", according to BBC business editor Kamal Ahmed, who says the "only three words that matter" in a crisis are honesty, transparency and information.

Kamal Ahmed: picture credit, Paul Hampartsoumian/REX Shutterstock
Kamal Ahmed: picture credit, Paul Hampartsoumian/REX Shutterstock

Speaking at the PRCA National Conference today, Ahmed also said "vast swathes" of the PR sector ignore personal relationships with journalists and publications – evidenced by the large number of irrelevant press releases he is sent.

Ahmed slated VW’s response to the crisis that derived from the carmaker apparently using technology to avoid compliance with US emission regulations.

He criticised the lack of information from the firm, saying it should follow the example of BP during its oil spill crisis and hold daily press conferences. Ahmed said VW UK had "yet to say anything to the media about what this means in this country".

"I think pressure for it is only going to grow, because it’s a massive consumer issue, it’s not just an issue about whether the CEO is going to resign or boardroom bust-ups.

"I would suggest that sometimes businesses need to reconsider their relationships with their lawyers, their relationships with the outside world and with their customers."

He said the "most ridiculous" thing was that VW "told us constantly about how much it did care about the environment", which has fuelled "general public suspicion".

Ahmed told the conference at BAFTA in central London that businesses and comms professionals within them could be a "great cause for good", but "the operation can so easily be undone in that moment when you don’t remember about honesty, transparency and information".

He gave the example of Thomas Cook, whose reputation suffered after it took years to apologise for the deaths of two children during a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu. Ahmed said the firm "wasn’t transparent" and did not express remorse or even mention the incident in its half-year results released 10 days after an inquest said Thomas Cook held some responsibility.

"I think sometimes people forget to be human beings."

In contrast, Merlin CEO Nick Varney "immediately fronted up" after the crash this summer at a ride at Alton Towers that caused serious injuries.

Ahmed said: "In that second that destroys a reputation, remember that you are speaking to normal people, often through us [journalists]. You have to think like them; what would they think you ought to be doing?

"VW isn’t commentating with them. VW is maybe communicating with its investors to an extent, it’s communicating with its own board… and it’s putting out the odd press release."

He added: "Speak human, and remember those three words about honesty, transparency and information."

Ahmed, who previously worked as director of comms at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, began his speech discussing the range of irrelevant emails and press releases he receives from PRs in his current role.

On one day he received press information on a book about "confidence on camera" from a PR agency intern; some information on "beautycrowd.com"; and a press release about a blow-dry treatment for use at home, "from Azzara, single kiss".

He was even asked if fellow BBC presenter Robert Peston "would be interested in a meeting". "I am not Robert Peston, and I’m not in fact his diary secretary either," Ahmed said.

"I think that notion of personal relationships seems to be ignored by vast swathes of your industry. I get so many emails like that. I wonder why clients are paying [for their services].

"Unless you target what you’re going to say to the audience, i.e. the media people you are speaking to, you are not going to be able to engage with us in a way that is going to be helpful to us."

Ahmed said he knew "many, many brilliant operations in communications" but "there are too many times when that relationship breaks down or is just irrelevant". He urged PR to "pick up the pace".

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