July 9, 2018
Talking Points

What Wells Fargo and Starbucks can teach firms about apologies

Andrea Obston

For Wells Fargo, Facebook, Starbucks and even Samantha Bee, apologies are in bloom.

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.

Reputation recovery starts with authentic apologies. Here's what those look like:

The human apology

Too many corporate apologies sound like they were written by a machine. You take one phrase from column A: "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 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 … . 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 and a little corporate, but making it personal (" … nor is it one I myself would want … ") made me want to give them another chance.

Remember why you loved me

Good apologies harken back to a time when we liked the company. 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 wedding anniversaries.

Some have criticized the spot because it paints Facebook as a passive victim and does not outline what it plans to change. I believe it's a good start. 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.

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.

Take the case of Airbnb. In Dec. 2015, they came under fire for racial profiling and discrimination. Airbnb proactively addressed this problem.

It started with an email from co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky that stated that such discrimination was in direct opposition to the company's founding principle of building community. He outlined what they were going to do to prevent it in the future. The company commissioned a report that documented where Airbnb was falling short and suggested what they would change. Since it was released, the brand has launched a public campaign with the theme of inclusion.

A public commitment to change

Uber, Facebook and Wells Fargo have, in some form or another, mentioned their wrongdoings 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. Their new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is featured in ads that focus on what the company calls its "next chapter." And while the ads gloss over Uber's many scandals, Khosrowshahi promises that the company will strive to do the right thing.

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 reiterating 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 to do the work of rebuilding trust with the public.

Andrea Obston is president of Bloomfield-based Andrea Obston Marketing Communications.

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