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Big Boss Suffers PR Disaster at JMG Lecture

Portrait on David IbisonJournalism and communications students grilled the powerful chairman of Volkswagen, Ferdinand Piëch, during a dramatic lecture on Tuesday that turned into a PR bloodbath for the beleaguered boss of the disgraced German car company.

Well, almost… David Ibison, former head of communications at Volvo Cars, played the role of Mr Piëch, who presided over the biggest corporate scandal in history after it was revealed in 2015 that VW had falsified the emissions performance of millions of diesel cars.

VW put software into its diesel engines that meant the engine could recognise when it was being tested, so that it could change its performance and reduce its emissions during the test. Researchers in the USA soon discovered that, outside the laboratory, the engines were emitting far higher levels than the legal limit. The company had ultimately sold 11 million of the affected cars.

David invited students to play the role of journalists interviewing Ferdinand Piëch as the scandal was breaking. He also asked them to imagine how they would have responded if they had been in charge of VW’s communications at the time.

Then he analysed VW’s actual response, its strengths and weaknesses, demonstrating the deep cynicism that drove home parts of the company’s strategy and tactics. It didn’t take long for the truth to come out that the company was had covered up their cheating.

David used the lecture to dive deep into “the dark art of spin” – how to manipulate information to get what you want.

“The VW scandal is a story of greed, power and human weakness, about corporate interests and the primacy of profit and shareholders interests over human health and the environment,” he said. “Large corporations can be almost psychopathic in their pursuit of growth, profit and shareholder value. In a crisis like the one at VW, when a company is fighting for its life, communication is a contact sport. But you will encounter the same set of human emotions and calculations in many situations in crisis communications."

By: David Crouch, lecturer at JMG's international master programme in investigative journalism (MIJ).

Save the date

This was David Ibison's first lecture for the students at JMG.

Don't miss the next opportunity with David Ibison lecturing on ”Detoxifying the Chinese”.

Preliminary date and time: 6 December 10-12.