STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The new leadership at Volkswagen has to find some way to get the car back in drive. The company suffered a disastrous blow to its image in recent weeks. Its cheating on emissions tests was revealed. NPR's Yuki Noguchi asked experts how to fix the company's reputation.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: For decades, American culture has had a soft spot for Volkswagen. Think of Herbie The Love Bug...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOVE BUG")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Isn't that the scruffy little car we had in the shop?
NOGUCHI: Or the dysfunctional family taking a road trip in a chronically honking classic VW bus in "Little Miss Sunshine."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE")
GREG KINNEAR: (As Richard) It's stuck or something.
TONI COLLETTE: (As Sheryl) Try pulling it from here.
KINNEAR: (As Richard) Oh, jeez, I'm being pulled over. Everybody just pretend to be normal.
NOGUCHI: VW cultivates that progressive counterculture association in its advertising.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stop less. Go more.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Passat TDI Clean Diesel, with up to 814 highway miles per tank, just one reason Volkswagen is the number one selling diesel car brand in America.
NOGUCHI: David Whitcomb bought into it, so much so the Waynesboro, Va. resident owns four Volkswagens.
DAVID WHITCOMB: They were amazing commercials, and they created this enthusiasm, and you - they talked about driving for love. And man, it's hard to talk that way right now.
NOGUCHI: Eric Dezenhall is CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis management firm. He says VW has clearly put itself in a world of pain. But he says a comeback is still very likely.
ERIC DEZENHALL: I think Volkswagen is playing a long-term game, and I think that if you evaluate how well a company is doing in mid-crisis, it's sort of like trying to figure out how well a patient is doing in mid-surgery.
NOGUCHI: Earlier this week, VW's chairman warned the scandal poses an existential threat. Yesterday, the company's new CEO warned employees of financial retrenchment. The company will pare back or delay nearly all planned investments. Meanwhile, the company's investigation is reportedly focusing on at least three top executives who are among those who've been suspended. That trickle of bad news, Dezenhall says, does not help. But...
DEZENHALL: To some degree, the drip-drip of allegation is a part of the process.
NOGUCHI: Dezenhall says it's a mistake to seek a faster path out of the dumps. The public does not take kindly to companies dealing with self-inflicted wounds trying to put a happy face on bad news.
DEZENHALL: The crisis has to pass through the system. You've got to go through CEO firings. You have to go through lawsuits. You have to go through congressional hearings. And these are all of the rituals that you have to survive.
NOGUCHI: So going forward, be honest. And, he says, focus on the substance. VW must successfully recall the cars, fix the problems, and offer incentives to loyal customers. Those are not issues marketing alone can solve.
DEZENHALL: It's not messaging and spin that are going to vindicate them.
NOGUCHI: Joan Schmit is professor of risk management at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She says Volkswagen set itself up by touting its German engineering and environmentalist credibility in its various ad campaigns.
JOAN SCHMIT: That is one of the ironies of reputation, both development and maintenance, that, of course, we have to be who we say we are. And if it turns out that we're less than who we say we are, that's going to be damaging.
NOGUCHI: Schmit says VW has a long history and good reputation heading into this crisis. The company could still redeem itself. But she says, it will take a very, very long time. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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