Vauxhall has just provided the latest lesson in how to turn an operational crisis into a reputational disaster.

The Transport Select Committee’s MPs have condemned the firm for being ‘morally reprehensible’ and having a ‘reckless disregard for [its customers’] safety’ – damning words no company ever wants attached to its name.

The company’s core problem was failing to act swiftly and decisively to deal with its Zafira B cars, which kept bursting into flames.

The safety problem first came to light in 2009. But Vauxhall did nothing, seemingly ignoring the issue and, incredibly, not informing its customers about it. It wasn’t until late 2015 that the company started investigating, at which point there had been a staggering 161 fires.

When Vauxhall finally recalled the cars in December that year, a Facebook pressure group had been set up by angry customers and a BBC Watchdog investigation had been broadcast.

And when the ‘repaired’ cars were returned and still caught fire, Vauxhall was slow all over again to talk to its customers and recall them a second time.

It’s amazingly lucky no-one was killed or seriously hurt.

 

Select Committee Chair Louise Ellman MP said the car maker was ‘too slow to acknowledge drivers’ concerns, too slow to begin an investigation, too slow to address the causes and too slow to alert drivers of real safety concerns. Drivers and their families were needlessly put at risk.’

The MPs’ blistering indictment of the company seems fully deserved. But I think they’re wrong where they said:

‘In the absence of any explanation for its tardy response … we can only conclude that commercial considerations and the need to avoid reputational damage were put ahead of safety.’

I can well believe commercial considerations were to blame. Recalling and fixing cars is expensive. But suspecting a ‘need to avoid reputational damage’ as a motive makes less sense.

By being so reluctant to act on an issue that was never going to resolve itself – and getting dragged in front of a Select Committee with no credible defence – the company could hardly have harmed its reputation more if it had tried.

If it did avoid action out of a desire to protect its reputation, this was misguided in the extreme.

The right approach is always, when a serious problem strikes, to tackle it swiftly head-on and communicate openly and honestly about what you’re doing.

Sticking your head in the sand and keeping quiet is never a good idea.