The joy of pain – VW, schadenfreude and public relations

dummyA global crisis situation – such as that experienced by VW currently – brings out an ugly side of public relations. A hubristic sadism, or malignant narcissism. I’m exaggerating but that’s my point. Those who feel compelled to comment and criticise their fellow PR practitioners commonly rely on speculation and extrapolation, quickly escalating a reasonable reflection into a full blown attack, based on their own righteousness.

As I commented on a UK blog post titled VW: the self-inflicted scandal of the century (which is pretty good forecasting from a perspective of 2015), there are too many who pontificate – which my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary defines as pretending to be infallible and pompously dogmatic. They reflect predominantly a positivist philosophy, suggesting it would be easy to avoid and control a situation by following what they say a company should have done, should be doing and MUST do going forwards. Such ‘rules’ reflect their own opinion or a form of ‘received wisdom’.

We saw it with Toyota, BP, Thomas Cook, and any other recent crisis of small or large magnitude. Profits of doom and destruction who reflect schadenfreude, with apparent joy in the misery of others. Even worse are those who seek to use high profile crisis situations to promote their own supremacy and services. Hyperbole on top of hyperbole is evident in emotionally powered pieces. Judgement is taken and sentences passed without so much as a hint of an evidence base.

I write as someone who has worked in the motor industry since the late 1980s, I’ve been that PR practitioner dealing with a complex and rapidly emerging crisis (albeit on a much smaller scale and pre-social media). I know how difficult it can be to get information, particularly when you work for a national office of an international operation. But I can only imagine what it is like to be working right now in the VW press office or public relations department.

Rather than rushing to criticise, as professionals shouldn’t we first evaluate the situation based on what we know of the reality of working in public relations? That’s not a world where either PR people are complicit in every ‘scandal’, or at least covering it up. It’s not a place where you can call on PR agencies to swoop in like a superhero or ghostbuster to clean up the mess and put things right by the time the credits roll.

I want to see far more realistic discussion about crisis management in our occupation – where we are mindful of the mental health implications for PR practitioners who are ‘crisis workers’ at the eye of the storm, and recognise the limitations on what we are able to do before, during and after a crisis.

In my chapter on risk, issues and crisis management updated for the 5th edition of Theaker’s Public Relations Handbook that is in production, I called for coping strategies to be included in any crisis management plan – here’s my suggestion:


Paul Seaman has argued at Spiked! that PR practitioners need to champion a “more honest, more humanistic agenda” and avoid participating in a ‘knowing charade’ of a ‘green pantomime’.  As much as I agree with his sentiments, it may be too idealistic for PR to claim this position as the corporate activist when faced with pressures to satisfy management demands and a myriad of stakeholder interests requiring that we essentially tell everyone what they wish to hear.

However, I would like to see much more focus in PR on risk communications and helping wider society understand that there are consequences and complications from actions of governments, organisations and publics in an ever changing, complicated world. Not excuses or obfuscation, but shared dialogue particularly in relation to technology and other areas which may be difficult for non-experts (including journalists) to understand. Simplistic communications (such as the marketing-driven promise of environmentally wonderful cars with excellent performance, low cost of ownership, etc etc) are disempowering ultimately. They lead to a false sense of security that can swing into over-reaction, risk aversion and ignoring valid warnings that everything can’t be that good.

The VW case as many others, reveals the hubris of so much crisis management posturing within the PR industry. We are not masters of the universe who can put all ills right. Few of us have the ear of the chiefs of industry – and many of them have little understanding or knowledge of PR. In the motor industry, that often means they think of media as those chaps on Top Gear who the PR team get to say nice things about our cars.

Rule One according to many who pontificate is to apologise. But that’s become a staged performance, a theatre of apologia, a rhetoric of self-defense or image repair, a tick-box action to fulfil public and media expectations. As with VW, it is a meaningless gesture that may take the heat off (if you don’t apologise you’ll be hounded until you do), but doesn’t address either the cause of the crisis or help with its ultimate resolution.

For me, such crisis situations highlight how public relations is part of a team within any organisation. We cannot do our jobs on our own at a heightened time of public and management examination of our professional competence.

As Gilpin and Murphy advocate (in their book Crisis Management in a Complex World), we require a type of expertise based on strong relationships and robust knowledge of the organization; as well as developing competencies in intuition, active sense-making, sensitivity to change, and rapid decision-making. They call for maintaining dialogue within networks of relationships within and outside the organization (including communities of practice to facilitate problem-resolution). These ideas require a shift towards improvisation and away from rational planning and simply applying the rules of those who present one way – their way – of crisis management.

And as professional communicators, can we not move beyond a Homer Simpson view of our fellow public relations practitioners?

Lisa: Dad, do you know what Schadenfreude is?

Homer: No, I don’t know what “shaden-frawde” is. Please tell me, because I’m dying to know.

Lisa: It’s a German term for “shameful joy”, taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

Homer: Oh, come on Lisa. I’m just glad to see him fall flat on his butt!

Image: Matthew Rolston book Talking Heads, The Vent Haven Portraits. Published 2012. Available from Pointed Leaf Press for $75 USD.

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10 Replies to “The joy of pain – VW, schadenfreude and public relations

  1. A really useful article and I’d echo some of the thinking; namely that when we use the term PR it might be easy for us to assume a common shared view of what PR means; to us, to each other and to the organisations employing PR…and we know this is not so..

    Its also easy to think that what PR does and can do is greatly more influential than the reality; hard to swallow, yes, but also correct…its human nature to be biased advocates of what we do.

    I think the take away for me from this article is the notion of PR (comms) being part of the senior team; i.e. “can we just discuss the pros and cons of putting that chip into the engine before WE decide to go ahead?”.

    1. Thank you Tom – one recent development confirms a lot of my suspicions of what’s gone here. Don Radoli kindly emailed me this link:

      This illustrates how not only was the senior PR person at VW unlikely to have ever been part of the discussion you suggest about the chips, but nonetheless has “left the company” and been replaced. Classic ignore and replace moves: don’t involve your senior PR people in decisions initially, don’t allow them to manage a crisis in the way they probably would advocate, employ (at great expense) external agencies and replace the senior PR person.

      It further reinforces this idea that a crisis – and managing the aftermath – is the fault of the PR people even if they probably have little responsibility in developing the crisis plan or response.

  2. You post made me remember that PR practitioners can only be as good as their organization. Hence, when critiquing crisis communication, we need to consider the broader organizational and management failures.

    The bad messages communicated are only a symptom.

    1. Thank you Christine. I have found it interesting to look at other sources in the VW situation – including HR, marketing and engineering. They all seem to do less criticism of their counterparts in the organisation than you find among PR, media and commentators. As you say, our ability to do our job depends on other factors than just what we know and want to do. That does apply in other functions of course. I suppose we associate PR so much with crisis management and this ‘hero’ status that many assume in suggesting we can solve anything all by ourselves.

      1. “Kill the messenger” – right? The messages are most visible during crises. I believe it goes both ways though. It is also PRs job to advocate for the kinds of internal structures, processes, and decisions that allow for the kind of honest and transparent communication necessary to (re)gain trust and reputation, so that it is not left looking like a fool who window-dresses. On the other hand, upper management needs to recognize this relationship; act and organize its communication function accordingly. So the theory goes. This, however, is indeed difficult in practice when powerful individuals in the organization try to cover their own butts. I guess that gets back to the core question about when communicators become complicit and about the responsibility of communicators. Anyhow, thanks for making me think about this with your post.

        1. You are welcome Christine, and in turn you’ve made me think about advice I provide to others about changing PR practices in their organisations.

          Of course, just because you don’t have that top level influence (which if PR is at the ‘top table’ probably only applies to the senior practitioner ie Director of Comms), doesn’t mean you can’t push at improvements within your position, and through informed and rational conversations with colleagues and bosses.

          It may be hard, if not impossible, to be an excellent PR practitioner or function is a less than excellent organisation, but we have our own reputations to protect and so should do our own jobs with dignity and not be complicit in things that we know are ethically, legally and morally wrong.

          If those butt-covering powerful individuals make demands of us with which we are uncomfortable, we can document our position (even if that is only for our own butt-covering private records), and make a decision that this is not the organisation where we wish to continue working once we have a clear exit strategy – or even without one if the issue is serious enough.

          The same applies as Paul has pointed out in pushing back if we feel that the PR approach is fluffy and too short-term rather than helping achieve a more strategic, long-term outcome.

  3. Paul – you are right that rhetoric is no solution to corporate malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance, nor is it evidence of actual responsible or profitable behaviour. One issue with defining PR as ‘reputation management’ is that PR people rarely remember reputation is more about what you do, than what you say or others say about you.

    Stakeholder relationships are an important aspect of strategic management when they are assisting in achieving corporate goals. They are also relevant in ensuring an organisation is aware of, and responsive to, issues that could affect the same. But effective relationships are not the sole responsible of PR or a CSRO no more than quality management is one person’s job.

    I’m also reminded in your quotes above of discussions arising from the post from the 1948 book about internal comms:

    In VW’s case, the Works Council seem to reflect our conversations about how complicit Unions were in Britain in the 1970s/1980s. I think we also see the same lack of ‘holding to account’ among community groups and charities that have been happy to ‘partner’ with corporates without question. Mind you, the behaviour of many large charities, NGOs and so on, seems often to be comparable to businesses, and again the PR/marketing approach is all about the froth rather than the substance.

  4. Heather, that’s a good sound reply.

    I just took a look at how VW talks about its Corporate Social Responsibility
    and Sustainability ethos:

    “Volkswagen is unlike any other company thanks to its corporate culture, which combines a modern understanding of responsibility and sustainability with the traditional values of running a business.”


    “The Group Board of Management is also the supreme sustainability board in the Company. It receives regular updates from the Group CSR & Sustainability steering group about the issues of responsibility and sustainability. Senior executives from central Board of Management business areas, the Group Works Council and representatives of the brands and regions are members of this steering group.”


    “With the introduction of the IT-based sustainability management system and the further integration of the KPI (key performance indicator) systems, we have created the basis for comprehensive and timely CSR and sustainability reporting in the Group. The improved control efficiency and transparency of the KPI system allow Volkswagen to meet the increasing expectations of its stakeholders for an up-to-date, differentiated presentation of the Company’s CSR and sustainability performance.”


    “Norwegian insurance company Storebrand also selected Volkswagen as an investment for its new Trippel Smart and SPP Global Topp 100 fund, which were launched in 2012. This fund only considers the 100 most sustainable companies in the world. We are leading in the “social” segment there.”


    “International conventions, laws and internal rules are also key guidelines for our conduct.”

    My point is not to poke fun at VW. It is rather to suggest that calls from PR pros (and here I know you are not making the error I’m highlighting) to make stakeholder relationships feature at every board meeting or for VW to appoint an “corporate stakeholder relationship officer” (CSRO)” or to increase the volume of its integrated reporting processes and publications and/or to renew its commitment to the triple bottom line, just won’t cut it. VW got there long ago.

    Repeating tired mantras won’t cut it. Restoring VW’s reputation requires the adoption of radical thinking and action that breaks new ground.

  5. Paul – thank you for the comment. I don’t mean to be downbeat and fatalistic, rather I am trying to present a more realistic situation of what PR practice is like in many situations. That’s not to say that I accept we shouldn’t push back and try to change things. But I’m countering the approach we see everywhere that presents simple ‘rules’ to follow for crisis management, or our dear friend, two-way symmetric communication as a magic wand for ‘excellence’.

    My belief is that it doesn’t help organisations to be given a list of commandments that are predicated on all crisis situations falling into specific categories. Rather I argue, organisations need to be more agile and flexible in responding to crisis situations (and ideally avoiding them in the first place).

    You seem to think that because maybe I believe there are trees and woods, that I’m arguing we simply need to hug them. That’s not the case. What I’m saying is that being told to follow the ‘rules’ and walk in a certain direction regardless of the geography of the wood, PR practice is about having the ability to work out the best route given the actual terrain and conditions that we face at any given moment in time.

    My point about the myriad of stakeholder interests is that it seems people are increasingly unwilling to listen to other views (and are increasingly able to tune these out due to digital technologies) and so the space for reasoned debate shrinks making the pressures on PR practitioners even greater. I wrote about this in a post in 2012: – which emphasised confirmation bias and how people avoid cognitive dissonance.

    For me there are two further issues in our discussion. The one is whether or not PR people have the power to influence senior management (which is what I was suggesting is not always the case) – and the other is when they do have the power, how that is used.

    If we park the first point, we are looking at the nature of PR counsel. Undoubtedly you are right in many respects that there is an appeasement approach evident in recommendations to simply bend to the will of others and say the ‘right’ thing. Saying sorry is presented as showing you care and listen, but is actually just a rhetorical act. People all know that – hence the crafted “I’m sorry you may have been offended” is no longer enough, we want more contrition, even beyond the “We screwed up…” variety. But that’s at the sharp end of the crisis.

    What you are talking about, I suggest, needs to happen away from the crisis itself. And I agree, strategic counsel isn’t about telling anyone what they want to hear, but cutting through the confirmation bias and being able to articulate, and evidence, a position that is justifiably held.

    But to do this, there is a second practice within PR counsel to address. That is the ‘lobbying’ that is as destructive as appeasement. Being robust and seeking to shape outcomes in a positive manner does allow for other voices to be heard and is not helped by conducting nefarious practices behind closed doors.

  6. Heather, you might have a realistic insight when you say, “As much as I agree with his [Paul Seaman’s] sentiments, it may be too idealistic for PR to claim this position as the corporate activist when faced with pressures to satisfy management demands and a myriad of stakeholder interests requiring that we essentially tell everyone what they wish to hear.”

    However, I find your remarks above much too accepting of the status quo and quite downbeat and fatalistic: “requiring that we essentially tell everyone what they wish to hear”.

    Here’s some counter points to ponder:

    The adoption of the Green position with all its inherent self-loathing of commodities such as cars constitutes mainstream PR advice. It is the mainstream sales pitch of the PR world to potential clients from inhouse advisers and from PR agencies. There is little resistance from within our ranks to this dominant approach, which repeats daft mantras regarding sustainability and all stakeholders are equal like robots etc etc.

    The problem at VW, just as was the issue at BP and in many other industries and firms, was not a case of a management sure of its position bullying those around it (such as PR pros) to comply or be fired, but a case of a senior management that had lost self-confidence and authority and which had abdicated leadership and morality to third parties, including to marketing and PR advisers, green activists and regulators. It was a case of the tail wagging the dog and pretending that perception was reality.

    Hence I fear you risk letting PR and marketing too easily off the hook for its role in this and other such debacles

    The time has come for PR to assess to what degree it has sold its clients and the modern world short. That was an issue I dealt with extensively in my essay published by the New Culture Forum in its book “A Sorry State: Self-denigration in British Culture” which was entitled “How PR sells clients and society short.”

    So all your talk about core competencies, relationships, dialogue, intuition, active sense-making, sensitivity to change, and rapid decision-making, risks being more of the same old same old endless discourse that hides the trees in the woods. Unless that is we first step back and look at the bigger picture….and ask some tough questions about what we ought to do….and we what we ought to be recommending. It was in that context that I concluded in my article on Spiked! with James Woudhuysen that we should advocate a “more honest, more humanistic agenda”.

    So, yes, the time has come to be robust and to tell people what they don’t want to hear and to shape outcomes in a positive manner. The time has come for PR to lead and to stop being an echo chamber for mainstream Green bollocks.

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