There’s been much debate over at H+K (by which I really mean over Teams) this week about the Volkswagen/Voltswagen name change debacle.

I can easily picture the brainstorm where someone came up with the concept. And you know what? I think I’d have supported the core idea. It’s a clever play on words, demonstrates a business commitment to electrification… and the fact that AP, CNBC, Reuters (and lots of other media outlets) covered the story, you can see that it worked.

Well, initially at least. Now Twitter is full of angry journalists calling the company out for deception and highlighting that they are now part of a misinformation problem. It’s also reignited stories about the company’s history with government emissions tests.

If the announcement had been made today (i.e., actually April Fools Day), I think most people would have seen the name change for how it was probably originally intended: a joke to generate some headlines.  Yes, the story may have been regulated to roundups about what brands are doing to ‘celebrate’ the day, rather than producing dedicated pieces – but it would have raised a smile, and we’d have all kept calm and carried on.

Voltswagon also didn’t need a ‘day’ to hang its hat on. It could have worked well as a teaser for an event or supporting messaging to launch its new range of EVs. The concept would have been easily understood and most of us in the comms world would have enjoyed its nifty use of branding.

So, how did a potentially smart, inoffensive idea end up going wrong?

For me, it was the seeming lack of preparedness. Of thinking through the different ways in which the story could be perceived. Of understanding whether a brand has a ‘right’ to play in a particular space. Of appreciating what is going on externally that could impact when, how (or whether even if) you should announce something. And then from an outside perspective, the lack of spokespeople adapting their responses based upon those different scenarios once a story is out in the world.

There are very few true crises, and not every announcement needs a crisis expert before it launches. But it’s on everyone who touches a story to think about the potential pitfalls – to be prepared that not everyone will think the idea is as smart as those inside an organisation (or their associated agencies, of course).

This is where the humble Q+A should play an integral part in planning.

I’ve written a lot of these in the past 15 years. While I can’t claim it’s a highlight of the job, there are a few things I’ve learnt:

  1. Make your answers sound like a real person. Leave out the jargon – and don’t expect anyone to speak in paragraphs. And related to this, don’t have reams of key messages. If your spokesperson can only get one thing across, what should it be?
  2. Add in options. If X or Y happens, how might that change your response?
  3. Repurpose for social (and employees). While you shouldn’t have different answers for different audiences, your tone will certainly shift.
  4. Don’t ignore the hard questions. Any good Q+A will raise questions, highlight areas that need to be stronger – and potentially even warn you that something isn’t a good idea after all.

And lastly,

  1. Don’t leave it unread. Getting a spokesperson who knows a topic and/or organisation to pay real attention to a Q+A can be tough. I think it’s why it can be so tempting to see writing one as just an extra thing that just needs to be “ticked off”. But I’ve seen time and time again that studying that one little document pays dividends in the end.

I wonder, just wonder, if a better Q+A might have helped Volkswagen this week?