Repairing broken trust – what VW can learn from Marion Jones

Image by the Sydney Morning Herald

Ben Paul, Director, the Business of Trust, New Zealand.A guest blog by Ben Paul

Someone asked me the other day whether I think VW can ever rebuild the trust they have so badly broken with consumers the world over in wake of the recent emissions scandal.

It’s an interesting question. They’re pretty far down a hole at the moment, and I for one am very glad I’m not working in the PR department of VW, or on the floor as a sales rep. For all intents and purposes, it appears that they are just attempting to go about business-as-usual. This morning on my way to work I passed a billboard advertising one of their 4WDs, the exact same type of ad I have seen them run before the scandal, and it made me stop and think – will business-as-usual fix it, or do they need to do more?

For me, the answer lies in the story of Marion Jones, which gives an insight into the painful journey that VW may well have to go on now that they’ve broken our trust.

For those that are not familiar with the story of Marion Jones, she was the golden girl of the 2000 Olympics, an athlete so super-human that she won 5 medals – 3 Gold and 2 Bronze. She was a Nike ambassador and an inspiration to many as a well-spoken and down-to-earth global star whose charisma dazzled the media.

And then the rumours started about her use of performance enhancing drugs, and suddenly Jones was under heavy scrutiny for many years as part of a BALCO investigation. At one point, under intense federal interrogation, Jones made a mistake which she’s had to live with ever since. She lied and said that she’d never taken performance enhancers. This led to a trial where she admitted to lying to a federal investigator and was found guilty. The penalty for this deceit was a custodial sentence.

What were the repercussions of this to her personally? A broken woman, crying outside the courthouse in 2007 who said “I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust…and you have the right to be angry with me… I have let my country down and I have let myself down.” 

Her time in prison was hard. An altercation with a fellow inmate led to solitary confinement and she was unable to call her children, a personal punishment that will no doubt stay with her forever. When released she had her whole life to rebuild.

But here’s where VW can learn from Marion Jones. Following her release, she dedicated herself to helping young people in schools and colleges and has committed her time and energy to speaking openly and candidly about her experience to help the next generation of sportsmen and women make the right choices and learn from her mistakes. She even managed a successful comeback at the age of 34 in the WNBA as a professional women’s basketball player.

Some people may not ever forgive her, but she has grown and matured and has to a large extent managed to rebuild the trust and credibility she lost through giving of herself selflessly to help others. The end of the story is a triumph for her determination. Some will never forgive her but many have.

You can rebuild trust but it will take long time and a significant amount of effort. It can’t be rebuilt only on the foundations of your former reputation, and it won’t be forgotten over time simply by sweeping it under the carpet. The starting point is to admit your mistake, show genuine remorse, and be more open and honest than ever before.

It’s going to be very interesting to see where VW go from here.

If you haven’t seen the ESPN Original Documentary entitled “Marion Jones: Press Pause” I recommend you do. It is a stunning insight into the story I’ve retold above.


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