What We Can Learn From the Crisis: Volkswagen vs. Greenpeace

Tia Fisher Freelance writer, Freelancer, mostly blogging for eModeration

Posted on April 6th 2012

What We Can Learn From the Crisis: Volkswagen vs. Greenpeace

We're just past the first quarter of 2012, and we thought it was time to have a look at some of the social media crises over which we have tut-tutted this year; look to see what patterns are emerging and where we think the brand concerned could have done better.  We'll aim for a post on this each Friday of April: a little schadenfreude for the weekend, sir ....

First up:  Volkswagen (January)

The background: Greenpeace launched their 'Darth Vader' campaign (a spoof of VW's own award-winning Superbowl ad) against the car manufacturer, accusing it of  “using its huge political muscle to lobby against key environmental laws”.

What Volkswagen did: Oblivious to the possible responses, Volkswagen posted an invitation on its Facebook page for users to to list New Year’s resolutions and make suggestions about they would like to see the company achieve in 2012.

What happened next: A couple of days later, Greenpeace U.K. posted its own note to Facebook, urging its fans to ambush the VW page. Environmental protesters flocked to Volkwagen's wall ...

How did Volkswagen deal with the comments? Not very well it seems, as Greenpeace's video below shows.  First they ignored the comments - and then they deleted them.  Ooops.

What could they have done?

1. Think before you post.  Easy to say, but it would obviously have been a good idea not to have asked the question on their page in the first place. Before hitting the 'publish' button, every community manager or content strategist should ask themselves "what could possibly go wrong with this"?  If you're a major multinational organisation, you can't allow your social media team to operate in isolation from the rest of your organisation - your PR and legal department for example.  Greenpeace's campaign against VW was launched in June 2011 and it was still going strong at the turn of the year.  That innocent-looking status update was never going to pass unnoticed by the campaigners, and shouldn't have been given sign-off ... unless of course, the car manufacturer was actually looking to gauge public opinion on its environmental policy? If that was the case, then ignoring and then deleting the comments would seem an odd way to respond.  Volkswagen perhaps should have learnt a lesson from Qantas' similar error last year?

Once the attack was underway though, here's what our social media crisis team think should have happened, in a case like this:

2. Get the Facebook-friendly pre-approved PR response on the page asap.  Because there would have already been one drafted, right? Because the Greenpeace campaign had been running for 6 months and they could see this might happen, right ?  Because it's hard to get something written and approved at 3am, because ... well, you get the idea.  This response should include a thanks for to posters for sharing their view.  Let the protesters know you hear them.

3. If possible, get debate on the issue away from the page. Now that Facebook have taken away the 'Discussions' tab, you can't move conversations off your wall any more. A place on your website where you can give your stance, with comments possible; an email address to write to - these are good alternatives.  Explain that you would like to address their concerns properly and engage with them, and a Facebook page isn't the right platform.

4.  Keep talking as long as the comments keep coming.  This case wasn't a social media 'storm in a teacup', a three day bashtag wonder.  In this case, ignoring people's genuine concerns in the hope that it will all blow over probably isn't the best idea (although with other issues it can be).  It's a really fine line between stoking the fire and ignoring people.  Mat Morrison from Starcom MediaVest has done some interesting research showing that firestorms are calmed better by responding to comments - so that only those involved in the conversation or visitors to the wall see the responses - than by posting status updates from the brand, so that fans see them in their newsfeed, and are alerted to a situation they may otherwise have been unaware of.

5. Don't delete comments.  Don't delete comments.  Don't delete comments.  It doesn't matter how many times they must hear this advice, page admins will keep doing it, and it's never a good idea.  Yes, delete a comment if it's profane, trying to start a flame war, racist, or illegal.  A screengrab can easily prove the reason for your moderation.  But allow criticism, and deal with it.  If you must - if, for example, your page is getting spammed with obscene posts, or you are trying to staff up to deal with the volume, then you also have the option to turn off posts by others entirely which is what FB suggests during social media crisises. This doesn't stop people writing on your page - but they have to put comments under your status updates  (see point above). This is the setting in FB that allows you to do this:

Of course there is no magic bullet, and we're not trying to say there is.  But you can do your best to avoid, not to exacerbate, and to respectfully deal with an online crisis which has its roots in an offline situation.

For more advice on dealing with a social media crisis, or to book a crisis simulation training workshop, please visit eModeration's webpage.


Tia Fisher

Freelance writer, Freelancer, mostly blogging for eModeration

Freelance writer and social media enthusiast, frequently to be found blogging with with the social media management agency eModeration. You can find her on .

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