£4.7bn. Let’s just say that number again shall we? £4.7bn. Not the GDP of a small country, nor the price Manchester City want to pay for Raheem Sterling’s younger cousin, but the amount that VW, a global, historic, stable company and one of the financial world’s stalwarts, has set aside to deal with the revelation that it knowingly deceived customers and regulators about the emissions of its diesel cars.
Simply staggering. To put this into context this is nearly five times as much as much the average cost to the banks for mis-selling PPI. FIVE TIMES. The sheer scale of this problem is unreal. It is also the best demonstration to date of a prominent change in the PR landscape over the past 5-10 years – you can no longer hide from the truth. It will always come out. There was a time when PR was often about crafting and delivering the image of a situation that would drive audiences to receive and understand certain ideas or perceptions. Now it’s about dealing with the total reality – be it positive, negative, dull, exciting, new, or old, inspiring or damaging. With the rise to power of social communication, the ability to control a story’s narrative has all but disappeared and it’s now about influencing the path that the facts take as they weave their way through official and unofficial channels.
It seems that this week has been a perfect example of this in practice. Wherever you look, the truth is out. It’s not being massaged, manipulated, or driven underground. It is out there for all to see. IN the past few days Volkswagen has had to apologise for its deceitful approach to something as serious as the emissions levels of its vehicles – a factor which influences buying decisions; David Cameron’s team have been enveloped by allegations of actions at Oxford University that suggest questionable judgement; Cambridge University Hospitals Trust, which includes the world renowned Addenbrooks Hospital amongst its responsibilities, has had to apologise for a 12 month nosedive into special measures; and football club Manchester United have made headlines they never wanted to see about private contract terms, thanks to the release of Sir Alex Ferguson’s new book. Left right and centre people are on the back foot, trying hard to manage the reality that has been unveiled, often unceremoniously.
It’s not that this is particularly new, nor that it requires any special treatment from the PR industry – it is simply a demonstration of a trend in practice. It highlights that PR professionals need to work hard with the truth to make it sing. Because whether you like the facts or not, they will come out, and if everyone is focussed on the spin, and no one is watching the reality, it could bite rather hard.