Silliness backfires for Volkswagen as a straight-faced stunt provokes criticism and a brief stock price boost. It also spreads awareness of VW's electric vehicles, the only part that worked.
A legit-sounding news release Tuesday morning, the automaker's U.S. base, was headlined "Voltswagen: A new name for a new era of e-Mobility" and announced "the official change of its U.S. brand name from Volkswagen of America to Voltswagen of America." The graphic below was atop the firm's U.S. media page.
Division president and CEO Scott Keogh was quoted as saying: "We might be changing out our K for a T, but what we aren't changing is this brand's commitment to making best-in-class vehicles for drivers and people everywhere." (VW deleted the spoof by evening, but it survives elsewhere.)
The publicity grab included a Tuesday morning tweet, still posted, that starts: "We know, 66 is an unusual age to change your name, but we've always been young at heart. Introducing Voltswagen." It's retweeted over 3,000 times.
The early April Fools’ Day prank was intened "to get people talking about VW’s ambitious electric car strategy as the company rolls out its first all-electric sport-utility vehicle, the ID.4, in U.S. dealerships," posts The Wall Street Journal (paywalled).
The problem for VW is that everyone took them seriously, creating confusion about the company's intentions and moving the shares, putting VW’s communications team on the defensive.
"We didn’t mean to mislead anyone," a Volkswagen spokesman in Wolfsburg [Germany] told The Wall Street Journal. "The whole thing is just a marketing action to get people talking about the ID.4."
Veteran Detroit auto writer Michael Wayland, first to report the joke as news, feels betrayed and "sick to my stomach."
"Volkswagen accidentally posted a press release on its website a month early on Monday announcing a new name for its U.S. operations," he reported at CNBC (right). Wayland got a "no comment" from a spokesman and said "a person familiar with the company's plans confirmed the authenticity of the release."
A CNBC colleague, New York-based senior editor Dawn Kopecki, tweeted a link to what she called a "scoop by Mike Wayland."
Twenty-six hours later, Wayland set the record straight and noted pointedly:
Media outlets, including CNBC, reported it as news after it was confirmed by unnamed sources within the company, who apparently lied to several reporters.
On Twitter, the former Automotive News and Detroit News writer falls on his keypad in embarrassment over having been punked:
What I can say is that it will not happen again.— Michael Wayland (@MikeWayland) March 30, 2021
Sympathizers include Karl Henkel, a corporate communications executive at Ford Motor Co. "You shouldn’t feel bad," the news and content manager tells the CNBC correspondent. "Who should feel bad? The VW employees who set their credibility ablaze for a story few will remember in a week."
In another reply to Wayland, longtime WWJ autos reporter Jeff Gilbert comments: "When a major car maker puts a press release on its media site, it should carry the same weight as an actual announcement."
Automotive podcaster Edward Niedermeyer of Portand focuses shame on ill-advised spoofs by professional communicators, tweeting to Wayland: "My sincere hope is that this causes a lot of folks in PR to rethink, or just stop, the whole April Fool's Day gimmick tradition. As if we needed another reason to do that."
And from Northern California, tech communications agency founder Paul Wilke praises the Detroiter "for admitting the error, but you shouldn't have had to. This is a learning experience for PR folks too. Deep down, PR people *hate* April Fool's pranks. We have to work hard enough to get traction for believable news items. Harming anyone's credibility isn't worth it."
Another business journalist with Detroit ties, former Free Press reporter Nathan Bomey, reported fiction as fact at USA Today in a way he came to regret:
"Volkswagen spokesperson Brendan Bradley declined to comment Monday. But VW was not hacked, the announcement is not a joke, it's not a marketing ploy and the plan is for the change to be made permanent, said a person familiar with the company's plans."
His reaction Tuesday:
Dear Volkswagen: You lied to me. You lied to AP, CNBC, Reuters and various trade pubs. This was not a joke. It was deception. In case you hadn’t noticed, we have a misinformation problem in this country. Now you’re part of it. Why should anyone trust you again? https://t.co/1rcKT7p0u5— Nathan Bomey (@NathanBomey) March 30, 2021
Bomey and deputy editor Elizabeth Lopatto of The Verge identify their confirming source as Mark Gillies, acting head of communications at Volkswagen of America's "information center" in Herndon, Va. "If you lie to me, that [confidentiality] agreement is off," Lopatto tweets Tuesday evening. "Other reporters deserve to know not to trust you."
Yes indeed, credibility is a terrible thing to waste -- and that's no joke.
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