communication works

German car cartel

On crash course

At least the lawyers of Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW should be satisfied. Days after the cartel accusations were made public, searching for company comments on the websites of the German car manufacturers does not give any results.* Daimler’s current news items cover car races, BMW reports on the Bavarian sports awards gala that took place in the BMW World in Munich und VW informs about initiatives to improve security at work.

Silence is what legal departments recommend during ongoing investigations. Any statement outside the actual procedure risks to run against the requested confidentiality in the cooperation with authorities. Therefore, “no comment” is the perfect communication strategy from a purely legal perspective.

Anybody else, however, is probably irritated that the main actors do not have anything to say with regard to the severe accusation that they colluded secretely and illegally over decades, to the detriment of equipment suppliers and customers.

 

“No comment” is no solution

At the latest since Paul Watzlawick 1967 communication researchers know: “One cannot not communicate”. Even if you do not say anything, you are sending signals and invite for speculations: Do car manufacturers plead guilty by saying nothing, or is it arrogance (there are more important news, such as the new model series), fear or lack of responsibility?

Against the wall – German car manufacturers on crash course / photo: Vladyslav Topyekha, Pixabay

 

In any case, “no comment” is an expression of the fatal misjudgement that the most important thing is not to make mistakes. It follows the logic that “compliance” – fulfilling legal standards – is the highest priority.

In this case, seemingly the law has been broken. But anyway, following the law is never enough – if companies want to earn the respect of the public and the trust of customers, they need to do more, namely live up to their own standards and values: Daimler as ”corporate citizen” wants to “contribute beyond our business to the common good”, VW wants to be “a role model when it comes to environment, security and integrity” and BMW aims to ”shape a sustainable future”.

Where have they gone, the shapers, role models and corporate citizens? It seems they have vanished for now.

 

Zetsche: “Well advised” to say nothing?

* But wait – one of them has reappeared: on Wednesday, five days after the cartel-accusations have been made public, Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler’s Board of Management, publishes a statement. Or at least a text. Under the headline “The current situation“, the start reads promising: “Let’s not beat around the bush.” Then follows what is already known (“media reports“, “suspicion”, “contravention of antitrust law”, “European Commission is examining”).

“I know that many of us would like to have more clarity right now”, writes Zetsche – and, as the reader already guesses, this clarity will not be provided: “However, we are well advised not to participate in speculation.”

Who might have recommended this wordy variation of “no comment” to the Daimler chairman? Maybe the same legal advisers who, if media reports are correct, have made sure that the company reported itself to the authorities just in time so that Daimler as the principle witness can testify against fellow car manufacturers and escape punishment while its competitors risk to pay billions of penalties?

It is to be hoped that the cartel accusations and the diesel scandal will be properly investigated. The actors would be well advised to contribute publicly. Otherwise they could lose much more than a couple of billions in penalty payments: the trust of their customers in their companies and their brands. And hence the motor for what up to now still is a good business.

Text: Ivo Banek