In Crisis Management, In the Media, Public Relations, Reputation


For Wells Fargo, Facebook, Starbucks, and even Samantha Bee, apologies are in bloom. They are popping up in our in-boxes across social media and even on TV like crocuses. Folks are tripping all over themselves seeking absolution for everything from selling our data to the highest bidder to characterizing the First Daughter with a cringe-worthy word.

Are you buying any of those apologies? Are you willing to cut Wells Fargo some slack for screwing up your credit with accounts you didn’t ask for? Or Starbucks for introducing two guys to the police for asking to use the loo?

“Heck, no, you’re telling yourself. I’m never going to forgive them. Next time I stop for coffee it’ll be from Dunkin.” But chances are you’re wrong. Most of us are pretty forgiving (and too darned stuffed with information) to even remember what these companies did wrong. “What was that bad thing the Uber folks did?” you’ll be asking yourself in a month. But here’s the thing, companies – all companies – need to remember: we forget the good apologies. We remember the bad ones. We may not remember why they come to mind, but bad apologies leave a lingering taste in the mouth – in the brain – that says “Wait, what was that bad thing that BP did?  I can’t remember, but it was bad, so I’ll just go to that next gas station.”

In our experience, it can take three or more years to recover a reputation after a crisis. And that recovery starts with a real apology. One that sounds like it comes from a human. One that’s rooted in the reason people liked the company in the first place. An apology that admits your company knows what you did wrong. And, most of all, one that showcases what you learned from the crisis and demonstrates how you’ll change because of what the crisis taught you.

The Human Apology

Too many corporate apologies sound like they were written by a machine. You take one phrase from Column A. That piece goes something like this: “We are sorry you had a disappointing experience.” And one phrase from Column B: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.” And throw in something like: “Feel free to get in touch with us.” And there you have it – the soulless, not-credible and memorably insincere apology.

Contrast that with the one I recently received after a disappointing stay at a Hyatt: “Please accept my sincere apologies for our failure to provide you with an outstanding experience. It was never our intention to cause you such an inconvenience. Certainly, this is not the type of guest experience we are trying to provide, nor is it one I myself would want during a stay at a hotel.”  Okay, it’s a little stiff; a little corporate. But making it personal (“…nor is it one I myself would want…”) made me want to give them another chance. And, it was even signed with a personal email. Nice touch.

Remember Why You Loved Me

Good apologies harken back to a time when we liked the company. When we first decided we wanted to do business with them. They remind us of the good that attracted us to them once upon a time. Facebook’s television spot, Here Together does that. Their ad reminds us of Facebook’s beginnings. When friends reached out to friends with pictures of their kids’ graduations; with stupid videos of our pets doing what they do and with proclamations of our undying love of our spouses on our wedding anniversaries.

“We found others just like us, and just like that, we felt a little less alone,” a narrator says in the Facebook spot. “But then something happened. Spam, clickbait and fake news took over Facebook.”

Some have criticized the spot because it paints Facebook as some kind of passive victim and does not give specifics to its claim “that’s going to change… so we can all get back to what made Facebook good in the first place: friends.”  Critics see it as a false promise; one that lacks substance. I disagree. You can’t solve a massive systemic flaw with one TV spot. You can, however, throw out the first salvo – the thing that reminds us of who you were to us when we loved you. It’s a good start to a long reputation-rebuilding process.

We’ve Been a Bad Company

A good apology starts with an indication that the company realizes what they did wrong. Such admissions clearly must be constructed in concert with the legal team. You’re looking for a balance between providing acknowledgments of wrongdoing and fueling a lawsuit. It’s tricky, but worth the effort.

Take the case of Airbnb. In December 2015, they came under fire for racial profiling and discrimination. That month, Harvard researchers released a working paper, which confirmed that travelers with “distinctively African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names.” Reports on social media confirmed the charges and there was even a lawsuit in process over these issues.

Airbnb proactively addressed this problem. It started with an email from CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky that admitted the problem. It stated that such discrimination was in direct opposition to the company’s founding principle of building community around the world. He also admitted that Airbnb responded too slowly to the issue and outlined what they were going to do to prevent it in the future. The company commissioned a report by Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. The report documented where Airbnb was falling short on preventing discrimination, and suggested the measures they would be putting in place. Since the report was released, the brand has launched a very public campaign  with the theme of inclusion. It included an ad that aired during the 2017 Super Bowl and introduced their #weaccept campaign.

A Public Commitment to Change

Uber, Facebook and Wells Fargo have, in some form or another, mentioned their wrong doings and shown their willingness to change. Many crisis managers have faulted them for not going far enough, but I’m going to give them props for trying.

Uber started by ousting its founder, Travis Kalanick, who personally shaped their misogynistic frat boy culture. Now, their new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is featured front and center in ads that focus on what the company calls its “next chapter.”  And while the ad skirts the issue of Uber’s many scandals, Khosrowshahi does promise that the company will strive to do the right thing. “If there are times when we fall short, we commit to being open, taking responsibility for the problem and fixing it,” he says in the ad.

It’s early on, but eventually each one of these companies will need to demonstrate what they’ve learned from their crises and commit to change. Think of BP’s ad campaign called “Our Commitment to the Gulf”  In one spot, Iris Cross, General Manager, External Relations, for BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, gives an update on BP’s ongoing work in the Gulf of Mexico region since the 2010 oil spill. It demonstrates not only what the spill taught them, but how they are responding to it.

Watch, Listen and Learn

When Elton John wrote the song “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”  he might have written the anthem for crisis managers.

Admitting guilt, demonstrating what you learned, and how you intend to move forward with substantive change is not easy for any company. It remains to be seen if Uber, Facebook and Wells Fargo are willing do the work of rebuilding trust with the public. Whatever happens, I predict the next 12 months will provide a primer for all of us in what (or what not) to do after a crisis. Stay tuned.

A version of this post appeared in the July 9, 2018 edition of the Hartford Business Journal 

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