Academic journal article Communication Studies

A Social Constructionist Approach to Crisis Management: Allegations of Sudden Acceleration in the Audi 5000

Academic journal article Communication Studies

A Social Constructionist Approach to Crisis Management: Allegations of Sudden Acceleration in the Audi 5000

Article excerpt

Two years ago when "unintended acceleration" stories about Audi 5000s began appearing in the press and on TV, we believed that as an engineering company, the best way to respond would be through scientific analysis. In the end, we felt the facts would speak for themselves.

Our silence not only offended our loyal customers but also prejudiced potential customers against us.

Our lack of a vocal response to our accusers was perceived by many as a sign of weakness, or worse yet, as an admission of guilt.

Neither could be further from the truth.

("It's Time We Talked," 1988, p. D10)

Such was the nucleus of the response by Audi's spokesperson to allegations that the Audi 5000 was prone to "sudden acceleration" at random instances, resulting in injury and death to Audi owners and innocent bystanders. The allegations, which began to surface concerning the Audi 5000 automobile in the early to mid-1980s, gained steam in March 1986 when the New York Attorney General and two watchdog groups banded together to demand that the National Highway Transportation Safety Board (NHTSA) require Audi to recall the much maligned vehicles (Higgins, 1987). The issue reached a crescendo with the November 23, 1986, broadcast of the 60 Minutes news magazine, which alleged that such cars accelerated for no reason and had caused the death of six year-old Joshua Bradosky, the son of a minister, who died when his parents' Audi 5000 suddenly accelerated and pinned him against the garage wall in February 1986. Together, these events plunged Audi of America into a ten-year battle to restore its damaged reputation (Higgins, Job, & Pepper, 1987).

In addition to the aforementioned consequences, the crisis threatened to result in even more serious damage to the Troy, Michigan-based retailer: Sales fell 62 percent after the 60 Minutes broadcast (Higgins et al., 1987); the company was made the butt of jokes that twisted the car's advertising slogan: "The Audi 5000--Don't let it leave home without you" (Higgins et al., p. 16); and one member of Congress even announced his intention to introduce legislation to ban the company from selling automobiles in the United States until the cause of the sudden acceleration was determined (Gruley, 1987). The loss of trust subsequently made vulnerable the economic viability of the 5000 vehicle line and the entire Audi company, which faced operating losses of $120 million in 1987 ("Audi Losses," 1988).

To ward off such hostile action and to protect its image from further corrosion, Audi eventually engaged in a carefully crafted crisis management response. The focus of its national campaign was a full-page newspaper advertisement in which the company sought to communicate to key publics and opinion leaders its account of the "facts," and, in the process, put an end to the crisis ("It's Time We Talked," 1988). At root, Audi chose to deliver a corporate apologia, a response to charges of wrongdoing in which it offered "a defense that seeks to present a compelling, counter description of organizational actions" (Hearit, 1994, p. 115).

Despite recent advances in crisis management research, the tendency to treat crises as objective phenomena that have similar characteristics and, therefore, may be remedied with similarly "appropriate" media strategies and decision-making rules, persists in management and public relations approaches: For example, these works counsel practitioners to "be open" and "don't let the story dribble out" (Reinhardt, 1989, p. 44) and to be careful not to "minimize the problem" (Pines, 1985, p. 19). Likewise, some introductory public relations textbooks necessarily simplify the process, focusing on rules and maxims to guide organizational responses (see, e.g., Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2000; Seitel, 2000; Wilcox, Ault, Agee, & Cameron, 2000). Unlike communication and rhetorical approaches (e.g., Hearit, 1995a; Seeger, 1986; Ulmer & Sellnow, 1997), such sources of advice offer little insight into how to frame specific responses. …

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