There’s been no shortage of analysis about how VW has handled its emissions crisis.
So I won’t add to that cloud of commentary.
Instead, it’s worth looking at why the story itself has received so much coverage. After all, a tale about what comes out of an exhaust pipe might seem an unlikely subject for such global media focus.
Add to that the other major events around the world, from the hundreds of thousands of migrants on the move, to the slowdown in China, (which will probably impact every economy and therefore every citizen), and there might be some head scratching over the enormous interest in emissions.
Why should a car maker, which has a big slice of the market, but by no means a monopoly grab so much attention? (Plenty of us drive cars with Toyota, Honda or GM engines.)
If you ask yourself “What makes news?” the reason become a little clearer.
This simple question is one we often ask delegates to answer during our training courses, because it makes them consider their messages from the audience’s perspective – a crucial factor.
Too often their replies are “Stories about celebrities…the Royals….aliens….sex….”, to which I often reply that if I could write a story containing all of these, I would indeed secure the front page of probably every newspaper in the world…and then retire.
But most news stories contain none of these ingredients, let alone all of them.
So what does the VW story contain that grabs our interest?
Here are just some of its key ingredients:
- Universal appeal. You might not drive a VW, but I bet you know someone who does. (Or if not a VW, then one of the other cars in its stable of brands, such as an Audi or Skoda, which might lead you to wonder if they’re affected by this too…). This connection piques interest. (As a rookie journalist I was always told that stories about pensions and petrol prices might not be sexy, but they attract readers simply because they affect most readers. Ergo VW coverage. The clue is in the name: it’s the “people’s car”.
- Size is everything. The bigger the brand, the further the potential fall. And the stronger the story. VW and Toyota have been locked in battle for years over the No.1 spot for car sales. Last year VW was crowned top dog. Success might prove a fickle friend.
- The broader picture. Globalisation means almost nothing happens in isolation these days. Germany has caused many a headline well beyond its borders in the last few years thanks to the Greek debt crisis and the influx of migrants. It might sound trite, but remember that saying about things coming in threes? I’m not sure Schadenfreude is at play here, but this crisis is beginning to look like the perfect storm. (Some commentators are even saying the VW crisis could have a bigger impact on the German economy than dealing with Athens.)
- Lots of money. Again, journalists are always taught to look out for stories about huge financial gain or enormous loss. Think of all those lottery winner articles, or the rags-to-riches profiles of entrepreneurs (better still, riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches tales). Here, with VW, we have a share price tumbling, a CEO falling, lawyers circling…and much further down the line, who knows, maybe individual owners queuing for cash in compensation. Who wouldn’t want to read on?
- It’s got “legs”. Happy is the newsroom that knows it has a story that “keeps on giving”. Every day there is a new development, whether that’s a high-level resignation or Switzerland’s temporary ban on the sale of some VWs. There seems a widespread sense of much, much more to come.
- The ironic twist. We trained a company recently that had such fantastic twists in its “backstory,” which contributed to the company growing from humble origins to being a global player, that I just had to say to its Head of Public Relations, “You couldn’t make it up!”. This VW story has a twist too, though it’s a negative one, which makes it even more appealing to journalists: the name of the automotive engineer who helped expose the VW emissions scandal? John German.