Online Crisis Management – The Volkswagen Case

Written by: Nora Varga





Although social media provide an excellent platform for crisis communications, most of the companies – like Volkswagen – fail to utilize it. SM offers a great opportunity to engage in conversations with the frustrated clients and to provide them with emotional support in during the time of crisis. Therefore, it is crucial to integrate social media crisis management into the corporate crisis communication strategy.

The problem

Four days passed after the news broke and the recalls were announced when Volkswagen started communicating to its customers on Twitter about the accusations that they falsified their data about the cars emission. Even then, the only official statement they published was a tweet which directed people to the apology video of the CEO, Martin Winterkorn. What was the problem with this way of reaching out to people? What went wrong? Was that really the best way to handle the crisis?

The answer obviously is: no, it was not. There were several mistakes what VW committed. The aim of this article is to analyze those inconsistencies and to suggest a better crisis communication strategy through social media. 

Crisis management strategy on social media

What makes communication and crisis management on social media so much different from the communication on other platforms? 

One of the main features of social media is the interactivity. It is a surface where individuals "share, co-create, discuss and modify user-generated content" (Kietzmann et al., 2011). The other characteristic is that it empowers the individuals and consumers. According to another definition, social media "refers to a new era of Web-enabled applications that are built around user-generated or user-manipulated content, such as wikis, blogs, podcasts, and social networking sites" (Pew Internet & American Life Project). 

Since social media gained such an important position in corporate communication it is time for the firms to decide whether they want to participate in this new way of communication or not. When a firm ignores the opportunities and threats created by social media (Berthon, Pitt, McCarthy, & Kates, 2007 cited Kietzmann et al., 2011), due to their lack of understanding, it might lead to some unanticipated dangers (Kaplan & Haenlein, cited in Kietzmann et al., 2011). 

Wasn`t Volkswagen aware of the importance of such communications channels? If they were, how come they were not prepared to handle the crisis on their social media platforms? It seems quite obvious that firms need a good strategy for crisis management, both for spotting service failures and plan to handle online complaints. 

Definition of social media crisis

But first, let`s define what crisis and social media crisis communication are. According to Combs a crisis is the "perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization's performance and generate negative outcomes" (Coombs cited in Jin et al, 2014). 

The goal of risk communication is to convince the customers that the firm is able to limit the risks while crisis communication aims to respond to "immediate public needs for information" (Veil et al. cited in Lachlan et al, 2015). In this case, the public needs persuasive messages, additional information, and regular updates to reduce the mistrust in the firm. Crisis management is essential as risks and crises are unexpected and they create insecurity and uncertainty in the customers. This leads to the feeling of discomfort and creates a desire to mitigate it (Berger cited in cited in Lachlan et al, 2015).

This is when having a good social media strategy comes handy: this is the platform customers turn to declare their frustrations and disappointment.  They tend to seek retribution and emotional support after being ignored by the firm (Tripp & Grègoire, 2011).  How the complaints are handled can affect the customer's perception of crisis management and communications (Coombs & Holladay cited in Jin, 2014).

When it comes to crisis communications why to choose social media? Before the customers usually failed to complain because it was too expensive or not effective at all. They needed to call, write or appear in person - so "the costs of complaining were perceived as exceeding any potential benefits" (Chebat, Davidow, & Codjovi, cited in Grégorie et al., 2015). Nowadays complaining is a lot easier: just a few clicks and the complaint is posted on the social media site of the company. The only problem is that it is public.

This is the reason why a company has to be consequent in how to handle those comments, it cannot afford to lose control over the conversation or –as Volkswagen did, - simply ignore it.  The company`s global Twitter account itself was only used to broadcast the message and it has never replied to a tweet.

Types of social media crisis

So what is the best way to handle complaints or even a crisis? Why did Volkswagen fail to do it? 

First of all, the firm has to identify what it is facing with. According to Grégorie et al. (2015) there are six types of complaints which can lead to social media crisis and in order to be able to manage it, the firm needs to employ enough staff who can monitor the online activities and who are able to respond.

The first type of crisis is called Directness - when the disappointed customer contacts the company online and demands some kind of solution. The second type is the Boasting. This type of complaint occurs when the customers spread via social media how the complaint was resolved – creating positive publicity for the firm eventually.  

The third option is Badmouthing: this type of complaint happens when the client spreads negative word-of-mouth through the social media without ever reaching out to the company (Grégorie et al., 2015).  The fourth one occurs when a customer complains to a third-party website (Tattling). These are the most frustrating and worst types as the firm does not have any control over the communication at all. The worst case is when both the service and the service recovery fails: this kind of double deviation also leads to clients complaining to a third party.

Spiting occurs after such a double deviation. In this case, one may seek revenge and punish the firm by sharing its experiences on social media platform (Grègoire et al., 2012). When it goes viral it can seriously damage the reputation of the company.

The last sort of complaint is called "Feeding the vultures": when a crisis/ complaint occurs, it creates a great opportunity for a competitor to steal the clients. This might even lead to financial loss.

Crisis communication strategy – step by step

After identifying the crisis, the company usually receives warnings and messages. On Friday, some clients already tweeted about Volkswagen violating of the Clean Air Act, but the crisis still didn`t broke until the next Monday. This is called the pre-crisis stage and it is characterized by risk messages, warnings and it offers the company an opportunity to get prepared. 

The next step is acknowledging the crisis and responding to the news and the comments. According to Kietzmann et al. (2011), a firm should first identify where their customers are and then to convey the message on theses platforms. The Volkswagen scandal broke first on Twitter, therefore, it might be obvious to respond there. But are the majority of the customers really to be found on twitter? This was the first question VW should have investigated.

It is also essential in the era of social of social media to react fast as the news spread a lot faster than before. This was the second mistake VW committed: they waited four days before responding to the accusations. This provided the opportunity for guessing and created uncertainty. 

After acknowledging the problems and saying sorry, the firm can start with the phase of "maintenance": basically, they need to keep up with the uncertainty reduction, self-efficacy and reassurance (Lachlan et al., 2015). The communication at this phase should be a two-way process when the public is allowed to provide feedback and to partner up with the firm for the distribution of the information. 

According to Jin`s SMCC model, it is important to define the form of the message (Facebook post, Tweet, press release etc.) and the source (who the information is sent by – journalists, bloggers etc.) (Jin & Liu, 2010; Liu et al). 

To reassure the clients that the company handles the situation one must engage in discussion with them. As VW missed this step and didn`t answer to the tweets and comments an ugly situation evolved: they lost control over the situation as the complainers went to other platforms to express their anger and frustration. The best strategy is to get into a one-to-one discussion with the individuals after acknowledging the problem and to politely communicate that the firm was not aware of the problem, which would "relay good faith and intention" (Joireman et al. cited in Grégorie et al, 2015).

It is also a good idea to set up a Crisis FAQ as soon as it is possible. Unfortunately, VW`s reaction was too late – they waited 10 days before doing so. It would have relieved the pressure. The next step is to curate the social media interactions and the content. The questions are how often and when the firm should engage in the conversations on the online platforms and who will act as the representative of the company (Kietzmann et al, 2011).

As Alexander (2013) puts it social media communication can also act as therapeutic initiatives. It can be used to make people feel engaged in the company`s initiatives. Customers who are involved in the crisis feel more secure and supported when social media were is involved. Social media has a listening function: it is able to give a voice to people who normally do not have one, therefore, is important to provide them a place where they can let their frustrations out (Alexander, 2013) – therefore, it is essential to let the customers use it for this cause.

It is unfortunately not enough to be present on the firm`s social media site: the employees also have to "chase" the complainers. This means that they have to monitor their online environment "to understand the velocity of conversations and other information flows that could affect current or future position in the market" (McCarthy et al.cited in Kietzmann et al. 2011), and to understand what people are thinking and doing.


In conclusion, integration of social media into crisis management and communication is essential nowadays and it should be a two-way process. Companies should engage in communication towards the public and they need to be prepared to listen to what their clients have to say.  They must post updates, information, and discussion about causes to let the audience understand how the situation evolved. After the problems were handled on the online platforms the firm must not forget to directly communicate to the public at large (Grégorie et al., 2015). Finally, in the last step - evaluation -, it is important to draw the conclusions and to learn about how to act next time, if another crisis occurs (Lachlan et al., 2015).














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