How Personal Stories Can Be Used to Fight Public Apathy on Volkswagen

John Sisson Wilde Agency President
John Sisson, President, Wilde Agency

Volkswagen has lied to the government and to consumers. Its diesel cars put out more pollution than the legal limits, but through technology the automaker subverted the system and tricked the authorities, supporting claims of better performance.

For a few days in September this was the biggest story in the country. It later went international when VW said models sold outside the U.S. were also tricking the authorities. In the end, though, what happened? Almost nothing.

OK, true, executives have been fired, investigations continue, undoubtedly fines will be levied, sales and share price have fallen and for VW diesel owners and dealers it must be a complete drag as the company and U.S. federal and state authorities continue to negotiate a fix for the affected cars. It also has to be unsettling, to put it mildly, for consumers who were planning to purchase VW diesel models. For the rest of the consumer universe, though, it seems to be a complete yawn.

Picking Our Own News Leads to Apathy

Are we just apathetic about wrongdoing from major corporations these days? To quote journalist Psyche Roxas-Mendoza, “Today, you can pick your own news. At no time has the world been this compatible with apathy.” In the age of always-on media combined with our short attention spans, we are more likely to suffer from the bystander effect. The bystander effect is a coping mechanism to avoid information overload. Basically it puts us in the frame of mind to assume that someone else will take care of whatever the crisis is. As a result, we are free to forget about it. This often is reinforced with social proof: We don’t see others taking action, so we feel free to avoid taking action ourselves.

Contributing to a decrease in indignation about corporate wrongdoing also could stem from an issue’s complexity. The VW issue is complicated. Software in the cars detected when an emissions test was occurring and curbed the autos’ emissions. Outside the tests, on the road, the cars belched unlawful levels of emissions.

Combine that with the difficulty of making a connection to you, unless of course you own a VW diesel, and the foundation for apathy is complete. In addition, the VW case lacks a tangible safety component. Nobody’s been killed due to excessive emissions from a VW diesel. At least nobody can prove that a death was the direct result of emissions from a VW. An argument can be made, I suppose, that if enough automakers acted like VW, the resulting emissions could result in pollution and eventually deaths.

As Automotive News wrote, “The severity of VW’s nefarious act is so far removed from most average [people’s] psyches and lives that it fails to resonate. There is nothing tangible to attach to it. There are no dead bodies, no sex scandal, and the smoking gun happens to be a complex software device that most people don’t understand.” While the publication says many people are angry at being deceived and outraged at the environmental damage, “VW stands a pretty good chance of saving its reputation if it’s smart and acts quickly.”

From a marketing and communications perspective, that’s the key for brands. Act quickly and decisively at the time of crisis.

Once caught, VW got out the word that it would solve the problem and remove those responsible. This can have the effect of, if not decreasing indignation on the part of the public, at least decreasing the number of those who care. It plays well with the attention span as we the public move on. Problem solved.

A few words of advice, though:

1. Fighting Apathy: For environmental advocates and VW diesel owners, the challenge is to combat apathy, assuming they want more action to be taken against VW, notwithstanding whatever legal charges have been or will be filed.

The studies of social scientist Arthur Beaman showed that after test subjects were educated about the principles of bystander apathy, they were twice as likely to offer assistance to a person in need. Beaman reckoned that simply by understanding the phenomena and its attendant issues, positive engagement was established. The challenge then is to educate the public about what VW did in terms that it can grasp and will resonate.

2. Make the Storytelling Personal: As communications pros we know that storytelling can be a powerful tool.

Should VW owners and environmentalists want to effect change at the automaker, their marketing needs to be about personal stories. The aim of these stories should be to gain attention and sympathy. The more of these types of stories that are produced, the more social proof will engender sympathy from the public, people like me, and reduce apathy more generally. It’s not going to be an easy battle to fight, though.

To promote responsibility in others, however, is integral to combating apathy and to fostering a moral and ethical society.

CONTACT: @JohnSissonUW

This article originally appeared in the February 2, 2016 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.