With the fallout from the Volkswagen scandal still ongoing, calling it simply a blunder would be a bit of an understatement. As covered here recently, Volkswagen has already set aside $7.3 billion dollars to address the initial fallout, but the real question remains: Can Volkswagen, or any other company in a similar position, recover from a blunder of such epic proportions?

While there are no guarantees, these 5 steps can go a long way towards setting things aright.

1. Own It, Fast

The moment you know things are about to hit the fan, you need to step into the storm and take control. Don't hide, and don't lie. When things go sideways, a quick and competent response can mitigate a great deal of damage.

On the flip side, nothing makes you look worse than being slow to respond in a crisis. Of course, no amount of speed will help if your response isn't the right response, which brings us to our next point.

2. Know Your Audience

In a crisis you need to decide quickly who you will be speaking to, and what they need to hear. Continuing with our Volkswagen example, they have many different audiences to communicate with: shareholders, employees, media, car owners, dealers, regulators, and many others.

While there may be overlap with each group, you will almost certainly need to prepare slightly different messages tailored to each audience. Don't convey different messages, but address the salient points. Shareholders will want to know how you can limit the damage and turn things around, employees will want to know if their jobs will be affected, car owners will want to know how you plan to fix emissions without compromising performance, and so on.

3. Don't Make Excuses

When you or your company messes up, there are no excuses to be made. Mitigating factors, market pressures, a series of unfortunate events that spun out of control...excuses just won't help right now. The past is the past, and what matters now is the future. Making excuses just compounds the blunder, so own the mistake and move forward.

Volkswagen handled this terribly. According to the EPA, they had previously denied the problem existed. When confronted, the CEO blamed it on "a few people". They threatened to pull advertising spend from publications that covered the scandal. All in all, they compounded their mistakes with numerous excuses.

4. Make It Right

When you mess up in a way that affects others, you have a moral obligation to make it right (and potentially a legal one as well.) If possible, you need to repair the damage you have caused. If it isn't possible, you still need to do whatever you can to at least attempt to balance the scales.

You can't begin to regain trust until you've attempted to make things right, and in the case of a business like Volkswagen they'll never be able to recover if they can't regain the trust of consumers.

5. Don't Make the Same Mistake Twice

We're all human, and we all make mistakes. As such, we're apt to forgive transgressors if they show contrition and do their best to make it right. But as the saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." If you commit the same blunder twice, you can kiss your reputation and your business goodbye.

For Volkswagen, they'd better set things in place to prevent anything like this from happening ever again. They might, if everything goes perfectly, recover from this scandal. But if they do something similar again, all bets are off.

If you've yet to make an epic blunder, then good for you! An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and it's always best to learn from the mistakes of others rather than making them yourself. But on the off chance you screw up somewhere down the road, at least now you're now well prepared to respond and recover.

Published on: Oct 18, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.