June 28 was not exactly a red-letter day for diesel technology.
More like a red-ink day.
That was when various U.S. federal, state and judicial bodies unveiled a settlement, to the tune of a hefty $15 billion, with Volkswagen over its having cheated on diesel emissions.
If you’re in the diesel business, the headlines and the news coverage was not pretty.
Now imagine you’re the head of the organization known as the Diesel Technology Forum. The group includes vehicle and diesel-engine manufacturers, suppliers and subsuppliers and fuel refiners.
The press is calling; you have to make some sort of statement. What to do?
Delay for two days, then issue a “Statement of the Diesel Technology Forum Regarding the Mitigation Aspects of the Volkswagen Settlement Announcement.”
Note the “regarding the mitigation aspects” portion of the title.
You’re not going to talk about the overall settlement and what it means for the future of diesels. You’re going to talk about the parts of the settlement aimed at helping the environment after VW vehicles belched out more pollution than the law allowed.
In Washington spin circles, this is known as “Don’t answer the media’s question. Answer the question you wished they had asked.”
In medieval times, they knew how to do the same thing, though slightly differently: Say “Avert!” and make the sign against the evil eye.
In the statement, the name “Volkswagen” appears only twice: in the headline, and where it says Allen Schaeffer, the forum’s executive director, “issued the following statement … regarding the settlement with Volkswagen.”
Schaeffer’s statement immediately turns to the $2.7 billion mitigation trust, set up to reduce excess emissions of oxides of nitrogen.
The most proven, available opportunity to cut those excess emissions, the statement declares, is to get older heavy-duty trucks, buses and off-road machines to switch to “newer technology clean diesel models.”
Well played, sir, well played! Not only have you avoided the entire discussion of whether the label “clean diesel” is a misnomer, possibly even a lie, but you’ve found a way to turn the talk away from VW.
Indeed, you’ve managed to argue that the diesel-engine makers behind your organization should be encouraged to sell more of their products.
OK, let’s face it: Schaeffer is right. It’s like cash for clunkers. Get the older, soot-spewing diesels off the road, replacing them with newer engines that undoubtedly are cleaner, and we’ll all breathe better.
Still, I can’t recall a more clear-cut case of the adage: When the world hands you lemons, open a cupcake store.