BC tip: Volkswagen AG - Discouraging contact?

The German car manufacturer fails to transmit openness by burying the contact page on its corporate website.

The Feature

During our recent review of the Volkswagen group site for the Index of Online Excellence, we could not find links to a contact page in any of the conventional locations – headers, footers, primary or secondary navigation. The only link to a general contact page we could find was buried at the bottom of the media landing page.

The link is small, and in German on the English-language site (‘To Kontakt page’); it also requires a few clicks to reach. The Contact page itself is an e-mail form that appears to be outside of the site hierarchy.

The Takeaway

It is not an auspicious time for Volkswagen to have one of the only corporate sites in our Index without clear paths for getting in touch with general queries. The company, under fire for the emissions scandal, may not want to be bombarded by comments from angry diesel owners. Maybe the thinking is that Volkswagen AG is a corporate site and not customer-facing, but we know from our research that customers will find their way there.

One of the public aims of Volkswagen AG, following the scandal, is to convey transparency. Burying the general contact page and relegating it to an email form, does the opposite.


BC tip: Wells Fargo - Facing the abuse

An under-fire US bank responds to its critics on Facebook.

The Feature

It has been a troubled few weeks for Wells Fargo. After owning up to some highly questionable sales practices, including setting up fake bank accounts, it agreed to pay a settlement of $190m; fired 5,300 employees implicated in the scandal; and its CEO resigned after a ritual grilling by Congress.

Adopting fresh leadership and a new ‘commitment’ to customers, the company has also launched a reputation-building communications campaign across channels – offline, television and online, including social media.

In September it posted three messages on Facebook announcing the ‘new actions to strengthen culture and rebuild trust’. These posts prompted a string of negative and occasionally abusive comments. Unusually, the company has adopted a policy of responding to many of these directly, with personal messages from named company representatives.

The Takeaway

Although there is a trend towards greater corporate responsiveness on Facebook, it is still relatively rare to see big companies engaging directly with irate followers. The policy of most seems to be to ignore the abuse until it goes away.

In Wells Fargo’s case, a scan of their Facebook page shows they were responding directly to enquiries before the scandal hit, so probably decided that going to ground would not look good, even if it might have been the safer policy.

Scanning the comments, the Wells Fargo responses can at times seem disjointed and overly cool, even if they may be genuinely trying to help. For example, there the comment from Gigi – ‘They pulled that … with me too, that’s why I switched banks a few months ago. They kept robbing me.’ This elicited the response: ‘Hi Gigi. If you have any concerns that you’d like us to review, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us (no account numbers). We’re here to help.’ – Nate’. They also seem to leave the most vitriolic comments alone; probably a good idea.

There may be legal reasons for the cautious approach, and each company will have its own limits on how fully it can respond, or not. The main lesson is that companies with a Facebook presence need a plan of action for when big problems arise, and even if the plan is to do nothing, to have a sound reason behind it.

When drawing up your own Facebook rulebook, it’s a good idea to watch what happens when companies like Wells Fargo come under fire.


If you pay your taxes, why not shout about it?

I can't see how the tax spat between Apple and the European Commission is going to leave either side looking especially pretty, but it does show that tax payments are now a big issue. One perhaps that companies that pay up like good boys could exploit? 

The Financial Times carried a story yesterday headed  'Only one in five large large companies in the UK say tax avoidance is acceptable'. Why? Well, some top managers must actually think their employers should pay their taxes; and many more think the risks of avoidance outweigh the benefits. Either way, it's a matter both of reputation management and of its virtuous cousin, social responsibility. Two things for the corporate site, surely.

I started looking around to see what big companies were doing. I began with Apple, and yes, its European home pages link to a compelling letter from Tim Cook explaining why it is Right and the Commission is Wrong. Good reputation management, but there's nothing else I could find on Apple sites about tax. It is not being, to use one my least favourite words, proactive.

I wondered what other companeis were doing, and found a fair bit - but none of it is presented as effectively as it could have been. For example:

  • ExxonMobil, according to Forbes the biggest US payer of tax, has a 'US tax and payments' page under Current Issues. Easy to find from the dropdown menu, but it is very out of date - the headline talks about 2012 payments. Almost embarrassing.
  • Barclays produces an excellent PDF 'Country snapshot', giving a clear breakdown of where and how tax has been paid. You can reach it from this page. But the title gives no clue that it is about tax, and it is well and truly buried in the Reports and Publications bit of the Citizenship section on Barclays.com. It's almost as though the bank doesn't want people to find it; odd. 
  • Shell has a page in its Sustainability report called Tax and transparency. Clearly written, but actually rather light on facts (certainly compared to Barclays), and again well buried - it's in the Working together section. Who'd have guessed to look there?

If all this had been put somewhere more obvious - and in the case of ExxonMobil brought up to date - it would be powerful stuff. 'We are decent' is, we are always being told, one of the most important message to get across to potential employees, shareholders, even customers. So if you are, why not shout about it?

David Bowen

Shell hides its arguments

Shell has been relatively lucky from a PR point of view in Nigeria - it gets criticised regularly, but there is nothing like the publicity that would engorge it if it had similar problems in the US or Europe. But court cases have a habit of bringing these things into the open, and a new one - brought in London on behalf of local communities - again raises the question of who is responsible for cleaning up the oil spills that dog onshore production.

I have no idea of the rights and wrong, and we will be able to read the arguments as they they are played out in the High Court. But I am surprised that the one place people will go to find out Shell's line - its corporate website - has become so silent on the issue. It has recently been relaunched. The previous site had a good section on Nigeria, leading through to briefing notes and other material on its country site, but the only links to these I could find on shell.com are here: Investors > Environmental, social and governance > Environmental and social > Key SRI topics. If it has said 'How can we bury this most effectively?', it could hardly have done better.

What I find most odd is that the Nigeria site provides data that appears to support Shell's main argument - that the great majority of oil spilled comes from theft and sabotage, so it can hardly be expected to be responsible for cleaning that up. Oil spill data, kept admirably up to date, makes the point. Even more admirably, this is highlighted in the tag cloud that still adorns the Nigeria home page. 

As this is an international story, why is Shell not putting its case to a global audience on its global site? The court case will make sure people know about it anyway - why hide your defence? As I have so often, I'd point to the Ask Nestlé section as a model showing how tricky issues, big or small, can be handled in a sophisticated way.

David Bowen