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1959 Volkswagen Beetle Think Small Ad. Image courtesy of York Volkswagen

1959 Volkswagen Beetle Think Small Ad. Image courtesy of York Volkswagen

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This study aims to uncover, in-depth, the stakeholder relationship in the international crisis of a well-publicized case involving a multinational corporation. For the purpose of the subject matter, relevancy, research objective, research question, and to limit the domain of research the Volkswagen emissions scandal that began in September 2015 and...

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Context 1
... the United States, it was largely successful in spite of domestic Detroit's booming car manufacturing empire, and was the third largest importer among foreign competitors. (Lupa, 2008) In part this was due to clever advertisers' tactics to promote Beetle to a larger audience that had preference for big muscle cars, specifically "Think Small" campaign launched by American ad agency in 1959 (see figure 2). (Johnson, 2017) It was also other external factors that further spurned its popularity. ...
Context 2
... short-term goal is only shared by few stakeholders at the top of chain of command and lacks proper guidance for uniting diverse stakeholders to want to be co-partners in a win-win strategy they can get behind. The infamous Volkswagen "Think Small" (see figure 2) campaign, its top management's thinking was "think big", a superior mindset is "think long term". In other word, having a vision of sustainable value maximization. ...

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This study conducts a corpus-based linguistic analysis of the crisis communication strategies adopted by the Volkswagen Group in its main channels of stakeholder communication following the 2015 diesel emissions scandal. The theoretical foundation for this analysis lies in two major branches of crisis communication research corresponding to the two crisis outcomes, which tend to be pursued most vigorously in the context of corporate crises: image repair theory and trust repair theory. Drawing on and integrating elements of Benoit’s Theory of Image Repair Discourse, Coombs’ Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) and Fuoli and Paradis’ Model of Trust Repair Discourse, this study formulates a series of research hypotheses about the image and trust repair strategies deployed by Volkswagen in its press releases, its CSR reports, its sustainability magazine Shift and its official webpage contents published between 2015 and 2020. Given that Volkswagen’s emissions test manipulations fall into the organisational misdeed crisis type characterised by elevated external attributions of crisis responsibility, a predominance of accommodative crisis communication strategies able to offset negative public sentiment against the company was predicted. The mixed quantitative and qualitative research approach adopted in the linguistic analysis allowed for a diachronic and cross-textual study of lexical frequencies based on numerical data on one hand and a content-oriented investigation of salient lexical clusters and environments (collocations and concordances) on the other hand. The findings largely confirm the research hypotheses formulated on the basis of scholarly recommendations for the effective use of crisis communication strategies. In the early stages of the crisis, Volkswagen prioritises its ethical responsibility of informing the public about the details of the crisis and takes on a rather defensive stance in its image and trust repair efforts, which manifests itself in the use of an attenuated form of the mortification / apology image repair strategy, enabling the company to appease stakeholders by expressing regret without incriminating itself through an admission of guilt. Linguistic devices of dialogic engagement functional to the lexical realisation of the trust repair strategy of neutralising the negative reinforce this communicative stance. In the more advanced stages of the crisis, however, the accommodative image repair strategy of corrective action, which attempts to repair the damage caused by the crisis and prevent its reoccurrence, becomes most dominant. Moreover, trust is re-established during this phase primarily with the help of linguistic devices of attitude serving the trust repair strategy of emphasising the positive. Although Volkswagen’s crisis communication can generally be considered successful, stakeholder evaluations in the form of short interviews and contributions in Shift Magazine reveal a series of weaknesses in its crisis response, for instance its failure to openly accept crisis responsibility and establish a transparent dialogue with its stakeholders, discrepancies between communicated and implemented corrective action and excessive self-praise. These findings can provide valuable guidance to crisis managers dealing with similar corporate crises in the future.