While in the car the other day, a radio ad caught my attention, because my former employer Wells Fargo was apologizing and promising to win back customers’ trust. It isn’t the only big company owning up and vowing to fix past misdeeds–there’s Uber and Facebook, too.
Corporate apologies aren’t anything new. From statements to full-page newspaper ads, it’s been done and probably by every household brand you can think of and then some.
What’s new is how companies are issuing their mea culpas. There’s social media now, so companies aren’t just issuing statements to the media, and they know they can reach more people via Twitter than newspaper ads.
What’s also new: the speed at which companies should get their messages out, and the speed at which they’re expected to turn around their bad behaviors. I expected Wells Fargo’s add to come a lot sooner.
Wells Fargo has been rocked by scandals for two years, starting in 2016 when it was revealed the bank was opening up thousands of accounts without customers’ consent. It cost the bank $185 million in fines and harmed its reputation much more. More recently, in April, federal regulars fined the bank $1 billion for mortgage and auto loan abuses that harmed borrowers.
You can’t apologize until you are reasonably confident you have fixed your problems, changed your organizations’ culture and otherwise righted your ship — or stagecoach.
I have mixed feelings about all these companies saying “we’re sorry.”
As a public relations professional, I like to think this has to do with the role PR plays in organizations’ culture and the seat it has at the executive table. I believe that PR serves as the conscience of organizations, guiding leaders not on how to “spin” but how to do the right thing to start.
But the journalist in me is skeptical. I don’t want to hear apologies or promises of renewed commitment to customers; I want to see it in action, and that takes time more than words.
What does action that builds trust look like?
Being transparent. Supporting legislation and groups that protect consumers pocketbooks, privacy and more. Executives donating their time to educational and other worthy causes. More immediately owning up to mistakes and being very specific about what you are doing to correct them–which might take longer than a 60-second ad spot.
It also looks like, well, nothing. Not making any headlines for wrongdoing can feel pretty quiet. I guess, in that way, inaction speaks louder than words.