Trust, Truth and Twitter

Image courtesy of

On September 18, 2015, the EPA broke the painful news that Volkswagen had cheated emissions tests on 500,000 diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. since 2009 and millions more worldwide. The findings revealed that, in order to pass strict environmental standards, VW had rigged engine management software in certain diesel cars (my 2013 Golf TDI among them) to turn on emission controls only during testing. The cars passed the tests, but they emit up to 40 times more harmful pollutants than EPA limits.

In its observations on the “implosion of a brand,” the Union Metrics blog noted the first tweet about the “Dieselgate” scandal came at 8:49 am PDT on September 18th from @davidshepardson, the Detroit News bureau chief. Prior to that, the number of daily tweets about Volkswagen hovered at about 10,000. On September 18th, there were over 53,000 tweets. And by the following Monday, Twitter lit up like Times Square, averaging 8,000 new tweets per hour and over 1.3 million in the ensuing week.


Needless to say, the news sent shock waves through the VW community. In the first week after David Shepardson’s initial tweet, VW owners, workers and dealers alike openly shared their feelings of anger, betrayal, shame and outright vengeance all over social media, especially on Twitter. Someone even started a special Twitter account called #VolkswagenScandal. Among the hundreds of thousands of #VolkswagenScandal tweets since the story first broke was the news that Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company is making a movie about it. There were also several scary tweets last week flaunting #VolkswagenScandal Halloween costumes.

A Volkswagen employee spreads some love. Image courtesy of

Meanwhile, Volkswagen issued a press release on September 22nd, but didn’t utter a single tweet until September 25th. Since then, however, CEO of Volkswagen Matthias Müller promised employees that “we can and we will overcome this crisis,” and employees have started to tweet back their messages of loyalty and support. By October 30th, Volkswagen was back to tweeting reminders to get the snow tires on, followed the next day by Halloween greetings from a crackling VW jack-o-lantern.

Radical Honesty

When a crisis like this occurs, drama is bound to follow and a mega-corporation like Volkswagen needs time to decide how they’ll handle it, not to mention how much information they’re willing to share. However, as Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones stated so eloquently in a Harvard Business Review article on October 28th, “the Freedom of Information acts and social media have created a radically different world, in which reputational capital is more important and more fragile than ever before.”

In our transparent, social media-driven world, the authors go on to assert, corporate leaders need to become “compelling communicators” and adopt a position of “radical honesty,” or they risk destroying their community’s trust. The HBR article offers the following guidelines:

  • Straight and fast. Tell the truth and tell it quick – there’s always less time than you think.
  • Flood the zone. Exploit every channel possible to connect with stakeholders of every generation, gender, cultural background and communication preference.
  • Stay open. Foster honest conversation with your stakeholders. Don’t edit out the bad news. Let people say it all – good, bad and ugly.
  • Keep it simple. Keep communication direct, relevant and devoid of irrelevant data.
  • Repeat. Reiterate the message and create feedback loops to build trust. Keep in mind that trust fades when the message stops – or people get contradictory data.

Clearly, the Volkswagen scandal is an extreme case that points to the need for quick response and radical honesty. Heads of corporations would be wise to follow the pointers from Harvard Business Review. Because it’s not a matter of whether a crisis like this will happen again. It’s merely a matter of when.

How would you use social media if you worked for VW? What would you do if you drove one?

11 thoughts on “Trust, Truth and Twitter

  1. Social media is a crucial portion of business and it can make or break a business. I am sure you remember the Toyota mishap with the acceleration problem. Social media had a blast with creating memes and awareness around the different platforms. I think if I were driving a VW I would probably look through social media and see if any one was having the problem and open to the community.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Social media is so powerful it can take down political leaders, corporations and cornerstone institutions when one fails to realize we all just want to be connected and know about the world around us. Even when bad news, social media is now a trustworthy news vessel.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Vladimir. I certainly do remember the Toyota debacle. I wasn’t active on social media back then, but I am now! And I’m far from the only VW owner who is. ; ) Thx for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is definitely true that honesty is the best policy, especially when rumors can easily run rampant on social media. It was unfortunate to receive the news about VW, but by addressing it with the truth and a healthy dose of remorse, they might be able to overcome this scandal. In looking at the power of social media, it is terrifying how it grips people and even companies! Cyberbullying via social media has lead to suicides while careers have also been ruined because people can’t keep their mouth shut on social media. Where I do believe it is a great asset to most, we must also think about how much control it gives us – reigning that in and using it for good rather than for evil is what must be practiced. People will believe whatever they see on social media, so it is up to companies to be honest in their posts, whether neutral, offensive, or defensive, the news they share should be accurate truthful. Thanks for sharing this insight!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Betty,
    Honesty IS the best policy! Always! I think this blog post hit the nail on the head! Your writing is clear, succinct, and a pleasure to read. It made me feel as though we were conversing over coffee! Thanks for letting me read it~ As far as how I would us social media if I were a Volkswagen employee, I think that first I would monitor social media outlets extremely carefully, then I would follow my employer’s instructions as to how I should handle it. I definitely would probably stay away from taking a stand on social media until my employer makes their stand first, then I would concentrate on solving customer complaints on a case by case basis.


    • Thanks for the compliment, Nancy! I love that my writing made you feel that way. And thanks for sharing your thoughts on responding to customer complaints. Great feedback!


  4. What a great article. I hadn’t had a chance to look into this myself and was very curious on how they handled the situation on-line. I loved the quote…the Freedom of Information acts and social media have created a radically different world, in which reputational capital is more important and more fragile than ever before… I think this is why so many business are slow to join the social marketing revolution. The hard part is that the social message is going on with or without a business blessing. It is far better to just get on board and try to handle issue with class.


    • Thanks, Leslie! So true about why businesses are reluctant to join the “social marketing revolution,” as you put it. And it really could be as simple as getting on board and handling issues with class. Well said!


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