Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Pollution 'Bug' That Bit Volkswagen Threatens Carmaker's Image

Recent events had me thinking about my old ride in high school. 

As a teenager I drove an old Volkswagen Super Beetle that was painted bright red.  

I vividly remember flooring the gas peddle -- hoping to get some speed out of that machine. My all-time record, pointed down a steep hill -- with a tailwind -- was 72 mph. 

Once, pranksters rolled my car onto its roof. My Dad and I rolled it back over. There were some dings on the fenders but it started right up and I hopped in and drove away.

In the winter, we had to scrape ice off the inside of the windshield. The heater was a pipe connected to the engine. Hot air came shooting out of a small vent on the floor. After a long trip my left ankle was as red as the paint job -- but the car was still a slow rolling ice box.

That said, my old VW was the epitome of basic, cheap, transportation. If nothing else, that Volkswagen was reliable.


VW's reputation for reliability has taken a hit lately. Perhaps you heard about it. On Sept. 18 the EPA revealed that Volkswagen sold 11 million diesel cars equipped with computer software that turned on a pollution control device when cars were being tested. The pollution control system turned off when cars went back to normal driving conditions.

As a result, VWs spewed out pollution that was up to 40 times higher than allowed by federal regulations.

In a report by the Washington Post Frank O’Donnell, director of Clean Air Watch, was quoted as saying, “The charges here are truly appalling ... It was cheating not just car buyers but the breathing public.”

VW could be fined up to $37,500 for each car that violated federal pollution rules and that could add up to $18 billion. The company says it has set aside more than $7 billion to pay for damages and anticipated car repairs.

However, the real cost could go much higher. Volkswagen's reliable reputation is in danger of being shredded. Undoubtedly, millions of the company's customers purchased vehicles based on the phony pollution figures. And they can't be very happy.

Ironically, Volkswagen is German for "The People's Car."

Wall Street isn't happy either. According to shares of Volkswagen stock dropped from around $160 to $110 in the three trading days following the EPA's announcement. On Sept. 30 VW closed at $103 per share. Ouch. In May, Forbes listed the Volkswagen Group as the world's 14th largest company with $425 billion in assets and sales of $268 billion. Those numbers have no doubt fallen dramatically.

A VW dealer in Woodlands, Texas told NBC News he sold 13 cars on the Saturday after the scandal broke and only one vehicle on the following Tuesday. 

Media reports say dozens of lawsuits have been filed and more are likely. VW has had to stop selling the cars in question. Officials in Germany have launched an investigation.

So what is Volkswagen doing to restore the public's confidence? Good question. The company has fired CEO Martin Winterkorn who has said he doesn't know how this happened. 

A video posted on Volkswagen's website includes an apology from Michael Horn, President and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. 

Horn says in part, "While we are still gathering all the facts it's clear that our company betrayed the trust of you, our customers, our employees, our dealers and the public." Horn goes on to say that VW is cooperating with regulators to determine a course of action and that customers will be notified when a fix is available.

Volkswagen has also set up a customer service hotline to answer questions. It's 1 (800) 822-8987. The question I think should be answered is 'How did this happen?'

I always tell people that a key tenet of effective public relations is to "do good." In other words, it's best to do the right thing from the start. Failing that, a key tenet of crisis management is to make things right as soon as humanly possible. As I write, it's been 12 days since the VW scandal erupted.

How is it possible that a company of this stature was able and willing to cheat its customers? VW officials need to come clean. And the sooner the better.

An old VW ad campaign you probably remember featured the tagline, "On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers Wanted." 

What's wanted -- and needed now -- is the truth.

Otherwise, when it comes to VW's reputation, instead of "Fahrvergn├╝gen" you can Fuhgeddaboutit.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mighty Mouse Storms Gotham (How a Little Rat Became the Big Cheese)

One of the constant themes I look for when it comes to media relations involves taking lemons and turning them into lemonade. Some organizations have a knack for putting a positive spin on events that could be viewed in a negative light. Other organizations miss some golden opportunities.

Case in point, New York City.

If you spend much time on social media you’ve probably heard about the latest Internet sensation: The New York City Rat. This determined rodent was videotaped dragging an enormous slice of cheese pizza down the steps of the 1st Avenue subway station.

A Youtube clip was posted on September 21, 2015 by a comedian named Matt Little.

New York is no stranger to rats. But this particular rat and his "can do" spirit touched a nerve. Over night “Pizza Rat” became an international celebrity. Within 24 hours the video generated more than 1.6 million views on YouTube.

Pizza Rat exploded in the national press. Time, The New Yorker, BuzzFeed and The Today Show are just a few of the outlets running with this story. has a story up: 6 Things You’ll Learn About Success From #PizzaRat .
Twitter is alive with #PizzaRat comments:

Somewhere in Manhattan, a pizza shop (probably hundreds of them) is claiming to be the maker of Pizza Rat’s favorite snack food.

So what is New York City doing to take advantage of the #PizzaRat craze? Apparently, not much. 

Not a word from the official New York City social media outlets. Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn't commented on his Facebook page or on his Twitter feed or on his Instagram account. The mayor's latest posts concern solar power -- certainly a worthwhile issue -- but it doesn't have the pizzazz of the Pizza Rat story.

In fairness, I realize the Pope is coming to town, and everybody is probably pretty busy with that. But no matter what's going on, you need to be quick on your feet when a public relations opportunity opens up.

I know, I know: rats carry disease and are a potential health hazard. According to WikipediA there are approximately two million rats roaming the streets of New York City. And I will guess the city's top brass doesn't want to call attention to it. 

Then again, it's no secret that rats are part of life in the city. And this is an opportunity for the Big Apple to have a little fun.

How would you handle this one? Perhaps you could use #PizzaRat to promote the irresistible dining opportunities in Manhattan? Mass Transit? How about New York's wild life? 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Reputation Management Collides With Car Rental Giant

     Hit the brakes! Before your next trip there's something you need to know about the car rental business.  An unexpected surprise may be lurking in the fine print of your rental agreement. It could cost you a bundle of bucks. And it may cost at least one car rental company its reputation for being, well, Thrifty.

     I learned the hard way. On a recent trip to Florida I flew into West Palm Beach and rented a convertible from Thrifty. I put the top down and headed for Key West. I was dreaming about snowy white beaches and fruity blue cocktails blissfully unaware of the financial pothole I was about to hit.

     Hurtling past the palm trees I didn't notice that toll booths had disappeared from Florida's turnpike. Not that I missed them. You might have heard that Florida has gone to a cashless toll system. As I understand it, Floridians use the SunPass system -- you buy a transponder and tolls are automatically deducted from your account. If you don't have a transponder a camera snaps a photo of your license plate and you get billed. SunPass costs $25. But it's a whole different ballgame when you rent a car.

     The brain trust at Thrifty car rental apparently sees cashless tolls as a cash cow. Thrifty charges $7.99 per day to use it's "Pass24" system which pays the tolls for you. The maximum charge is 41.99 per week. Keep in mind you can actually buy SunPass for $25. I declined Thrifty's toll paying service along with an offer to prepay my gas at $9.29 a gallon. I also declined the Navigation system for $13.99 per day. Oh, and the rental agent warned that if I returned the car early I'd pay extra. For giving them back their car early?
     I sure missed those old toll booths a few weeks after returning home. Turns out I racked up seven toll charges totaling $2. Thrifty hit me with a $15 fee for each of the tolls -- $105! That's not a typo. I was charged $105 to collect $2 in tolls. I sure didn't feel like a valued customer. I felt like Thrifty pulled a "gotcha". Obviously, Thrifty doesn't see this as a questionable practice for a company that's staked its reputation for providing low cost car rentals.
     I called Thrifty and asked to have the charges removed. A supervisor told me that the Pass24 option is clearly visible on Thrifty's web site. It is -- but you have to read the fine print to find information about the $15 per toll fee. As a courtesy, the supervisor said he'd drop the $105 in fees if I retroactively paid for Thrifty's Pass24 service at the low, low, low weekly price of $41.99. Just so you know, it's not just Florida. Thrifty also offers it's Pass24 system in Texas and Colorado.

     Here's the kicker: According to the SunPass website almost all other car rental agencies are charging  $14.75 per month for their cashless toll systems. That's per MONTH. Of course, you also have to pay the tolls. Here's a link to the rental car rates that are posted on the SunPass web site: 
    Writing about cars had me thinking about the old Ford TV ads. They featured the tag line "Quality is Job 1." Maybe it is, maybe not. But one thing many great companies have in common is the belief that reputation management really is a top job. Good managers understand that when consumers think you're out to get them -- it's bad for business. That's why reputations matter. A ruined reputation can be costly. Ask Charlie Sheen.

     On Thrifty's web site it says "Thrifty Saves You Money." Sounds good. But the best way to save yourself some money may be to rent a car from somebody else.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Adaptability- Cowboy Rick's Lessons in Career Mobility

     What happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force? You might end up with Cowboy Rick. You can find Cowboy Rick every night towering above the boardwalk at Ocean City, Maryland. He's not especially tall. Cowboy Rick  stands above the crowd because he's perched on a milk crate.  It's part of his job as a street performer. Rick dresses up as a rhinestone cowboy- painting his face, hands and feet silver.  He pretends to be a statue -- standing shock-still for hours at a time.
     It's amazing to see how many people are transfixed by Rick's act. People crowd around and gawk -- watching Rick as he does absolutely -- nothing. Some pose for photos. Small children react with shock and awe. Most people toss a spare dollar into Rick's tip jar.  No question, Rick has mastered a unique talent. But what caught my attention is how Rick has literally made a career out of adopting to change.

     Mrs. SteveBauerMedia and I met Rick during a recent trip to the beach. We got to talking during one of his breaks. (Hard to believe you need a break from not moving at all.)  For a guy who doesn't move very much, Rick gets around. Turns out he's a musician from Ohio. Years ago, Rick pushed, pulled and tugged his 300 pound piano up onto the boardwalk every night. He had one of the best spots in town but got tired of inhaling fumes from the guy who uses aerosol spray paint to create instant works of art.

     So for a couple of years Rick paraded the boardwalk dressed up like SpongeBob Square Pants. It wasn't long before Rick got a bad case of SBB-SpongeBob Burnout. So Rick moved on and started acting like a statue. Rick says the money is pretty good -- it pays for his globe-trotting. Rick likes to travel.

     And that led to his next career change. Have you heard that Americans are going overseas to save money on medical procedures? Rick says he met a skilled surgeon in India who performs hernia operations at a deep discount. And Rick is planning to move to India and act as a guide for out-of-towners who come for treatment working as sort of a hospital concierge.

     You may think Rick is a screwball. And I'll admit this musician definitely marches to the beat of a different drummer.  But he's not afraid to try something new. Let's face it -- some people find change a terrifying prospect. They can't get over what I call the "what ifs". What if this happens? What if that goes wrong? Whether it's a new job, a new relationship or a new community -- change can bring fear of the unknown. But it can also bring exciting opportunities.

     No, I don't think many of us should try to be like Cowboy Rick. Who can stand still that long? I just want you to think about making changes in your life. Invent a new job. Learn to use social media. Be creative. Get out that project that never got done. Write a screenplay. Learn photography. Or you could visit Ocean City and watch Cowboy Rick round up a crowd. Rick makes a living by not moving a muscle -- but he's not afraid to move on and try whatever's next. Life is short.

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Copyright 2011
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Photos courtesy: Trina Bauer Photography

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reputation Management - Act Like You're in the Big Leagues

      Pro baseball's Derek Jeter recently blasted his 3,000th hit. It's a noteworthy accomplishment since only 28 other players have done it. Jeter becomes the first New York Yankee to hit 3,000. And that's saying something when your predecessors include Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth.

      What jumps out at me isn't just Jeter's mastery of the fast ball- it's his peerless performance off the field. Mantle and the Babe were famous for their baseball exploits but those two also earned reputations as hard drinking wild men.

     The Yankee shortstop's accomplishments are impressive. He owns five World Series rings, five Gold Gloves and is a 12 time All-Star. He earns more than $20 million a year. He's dating models and movie stars. He's got it all. You could hate him for it. But even diehard Yankee bashers admit it's hard not to like Jeter.

     A poll by PRnewswire ranks Jeter as America's most popular sports figure. It's easy to think, "So what?", but it's also easy to lose track of all our fallen sports heros. See if you can link the name with the alleged scandal:

Athlete                          Scandal
1) Roger Clemens            a) Murder Charges*
2) Kobe Bryant                b) Mr. Clean
3) Tiger Woods                c) Steroids**
4) OJ Simpson                  d) Rape Charges***
5) Derek Jerek                  e) Serial Infidelity

Answers: 1-c, 2-d, 3-e, 4-a, 5-b 
* Simpson was accused of murdering his wife but was acquitted. 
**Clemens is accused of lying to congressional investigators about steroid use.
*** Bryant was accused of raping a hotel worker but the charges were later dropped. Bryant admitted to adultery and reached a settlement in civil court.

     Jeter has maintained his reputation as Mr. Clean for years. Sure, his polished image is carefully cultivated. And it's paid off big. He's one of the most marketable sports names around and that translates into endorsements for Gatorade, Nike, Visa and many more.

     Jeter is careful to say the right things but more importantly he does the right things. Jeter established a foundation to steer kids away from drugs. Above all- Jeter appears to be humble and truly grateful for his good fortune.

     Want to be successful like Derek?

Don't trash talk. Take the high road. You'll look better.

Lead by example. Nobody out hustles Jeter. Bring your 'A' game.

Support your teammates. Everybody wants to be on a winning team. Be a team player so co-workers will want to help you succeed.

Avoid Scandal. Don't be the office gossip. Carry yourself with dignity. Don't do things you wouldn't want to see in the newspaper.

Don't talk down your competition. If they're so bad then why are you playing against them? And you look even worse if you lose.

     I can hear you thinking, "If I had Jeter's talent I'd make sure I had a great rep.- who wouldn't?" Ask Tiger Woods. Sure, Jeter is blessed with an embarassment of athletic riches. But I'm willing to bet he'd be successful in any profession. Here's a Jeter quote from the Baseball Almanac: 

"I want to be remembered as someone who had a lot of respect for the game, his teammates and opponents, and I want to be remembered as a winner. But most importantly I want to be remembered as a Yankee." - Derek Jeter

     How do you want to be remembered? As one of Jeter's sponsors might say, "Just Do It."

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Copyright 2011
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Saturday, July 9, 2011

VERIZON Customer Service Update #VerizonFail #EpicFail

    My Verizon odyssey gets more interesting by the day. As you may recall from an earlier post, my Verizon internet service has been about as reliable as Charlie Sheen’s psychologist.  In other words- not very reliable. To briefly recap: for the past six weeks my Verizon DSL has run on one of three speeds- slow, intermittent & not at all. In fact, I’ve been going days at a time with no e-mail, no web browsing, no Twitter, Facebook- no nuthin! I’ve gotten a lot of comments on my previous blog which was intended to highlight the perils of poor customer service.. 

LF writes:  “In this economy smart businesses are doing everything they can to keep their customers. Unlike Verizon…Apparently they either didn't get the "be nice to customers" memo or they think they are too big to care.”

TP writes: “While very nice and friendly, I have found that their customer service isn't always the best in the long run.”

  Here’s one from BB: “Verizon has been a disaster for eons. I've been their customer since 1994 and still cannot get Internet service on my phone (don't ask!)… As far as I can tell, they do everything they can to make things as difficult as possible for the customer.”

      Good to know that I’m not alone.  Needless to say, I was  pleasantly surprised when @VerizonSupport contacted me after seeing my story posted on Twitter. Score one for the Twitterverse.
@SteveBauerMedia We saw your blog and we'd like to help. Please follow us @VerizonSupport so we may DM. Thank you. ^adh

      I was asked to fill out a form outlining my beef. The result?  Nothing. A week passed without comment. To be fair, my internet service was working (for the most part) during that time. But two days ago my connection to the outside world went AWOL again. Yesterday, I sent a Tweet to @VerizonSupport to ask the whereabouts of my promised help. I actually got a phone call from a sympathetic man apologized for not following up. He said he’d send a technician to my house.
    Today,  the technician did not show up at the appointed hour. But he did call to explain there was nothing he could do. He told me there is a pervasive problem affecting thousands of Verizon customers near my home. It appears the problem involves computer equipment located far from this area. I got the distinct impression that Verizon is trying to fix the problem on the cheap- instead of investing the resources to do the job right. The technician gave me the name and phone number for his supervisor. I called and left a message for her. Barbie- I’m still waiting for the call  back

     Next up I called the PUC- the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission. They can’t help me. That led me to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office. I filed a report there and Verizon has 21-days to respond. Since I’m feeling pretty annoyed with Verizon I also called the FTC. That’s right, I'm making a federal case out of this! A gentleman at the FTC took a report. Sadly, the FTC will not intervene on behalf of us consumers. But my case is now in the files. Next stop- the FCC. They took my report and say Verizon is required to respond to my complaint within 45-days. Why stop there? Hello Better Business Bureau! I filed a report with the BBB and I’m waiting to hear back. I sure hope they call. There’s no telling how long I may have to wait for an e-mail. So that’s the latest on Verizon’s Customer Service. Remember, if you wish to address your concern in English, press one, en Espanol…

     Editor's note: I wrote this blog on Friday, July 8, 2011. I wasn't able to post until Saturday morning because of continuing internet service failures. Since this was written I have spoken several times with people at @VerizonSupport who assure me that equipment upgrades are in the works. I should note that the people there have been unfailingly polite. While I now have (at least for now) internet service- it continues to be extremely slow.

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Copyright 2011
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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wanted Dead or Alive - Candor & Humor in Public Relations

Distant cousins of the Bronx Zoo Cobra

Rockefeller Plaza is - wait. OMG, Tina Fey just walked by me. Huge fan.
Enjoying a cupcake at Magnolia Bakery. This is going straight to my hips. Oh wait, I don't have hips. Yesssss.
Holding very still at the snake exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. This is going to be hilarious.

State Jury Commission finally tracked him down but Wylie won't be going to jail.

     According to the Eagle-Tribune newspaper in North Andover, MA, Deputy Jury Commissioner John Cavanaugh says it's unlikely the state will proceed with a criminal complaint against Mr. Wylie. I'd say it's pretty unlikely considering that he's been dead for five years.

     Wylie didn't respond for jury duty in 2006 because he was in a hospice with terminal cancer. He died a few months later. Family members say they told  authorities about the death. But those officials claim the family never sent a death certificate. For the past five years the Jury Commission has been sending nasty letters threatening legal action. So here we have the Deputy Jury Commissioner saying it's unlikely the state will press charges.

     Certainly there's nothing funny about Mr. Wylie's death. But the Jury Commission's cold response makes it sound like the agency is run by a bunch of uncaring bureaucrats. Wouldn't those officials look better if they simply said, "Obviously we take jury duty seriously... maybe a little too seriously. We could have handled this better."

     Humor is great but obviously it's not great all the time. Recently, New York State Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned in disgrace after tweeting pictures that were "below the belt". When confronted with the allegations Weiner told reporters he couldn't say with "certitude" that he wasn't the guy in the photos. Certitude? You have to admit that's pretty funny. But a congressman caught up in a sexting scandal isn't something you can laugh off- unless you're Leno or Letterman.

     What really cooked Weiner's goose was lying about what happened. What he should have done was fess up and admit he'd messed up. Would Weiner have resigned anyway? Almost certainly. But maybe he wouldn't be the butt of so many tasteless jokes. And he could have spared his family some embarrassment.

     So get out there and use humor when appropriate. Be pleasant. Be candid. Admit your mistakes. Most people will want to believe you're being straightforward. And for Pete's sake, if your last name is "Weiner"- keep your pants on!

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Copyright 2011
all rights reserved by the author