Say It Because You Mean It: Rating Corporate Apologies
You see them on TV, read them on billboards, hear them over the radio. Uber, Facebook, and Wells Fargo are taking over the advertising world with these huge campaigns, coming at us from every direction. They aren’t something you would have seen this much of 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or even five years ago. Today we’re seeing something nearly unprecedented in corporate America: massive corporations, with customer and user numbers in the millions, making mistakes and owning up to them in a new kind of corporate communication — an apology.
Corporate crises themselves aren’t a new development (see: Enron) and neither are well-respected solutions to said crises (see: Tylenol). What is new today, with these advertising campaigns that Wells Fargo, Uber, and Facebook have undertaken, is how willing companies are to apologize for these crises.
In the wake of major public relations disasters, a company often faces a threat from two groups: the public and the government. To fend them off, firms will hire PR pros to restore goodwill and lawyers to stave off angry regulators and investors. But oftentimes these two groups will have conflicting advice: the PR team will want to start the healing process, which should begin with an authentic apology, while lawyers, many times, counsel that they should refuse to admit fault so to avoid risking greater legal repercussions.
Where we stand may not surprise you: it’s just as important for the company to save themselves in the eyes of the public as it is to minimize fines and penalties from the government. And, finally, it seems like companies are beginning to realize that. Uber, Facebook, and Wells Fargo took a look at their controversies and realized they needed to apologize to us.
“That’s all well and good,” you might say, “but it’s one thing to say you’re sorry, and another for us to actually believe it.” Well, thank you, random person on the Internet, because I agree wholeheartedly. Making an apology in the first place is a good step, but it must be genuine. So for the rest of this piece, I will take a look at the cornerstone advertisement for each one of these companies’ corporate apologies and judge it based on its effectiveness — determining whether we should actually accept the apology, at least based on the campaign.
First, we’ll give a quick recap of these controversies — starting with Facebook. This company’s scandal focused on data misuse and privacy issues, as allegations surfaced that an outside data analytics company easily accessed vast swathes of user data to aid in political campaigns. What hurt even further were previous allegations that Russia had used the platform to influence recent U.S. elections.
Wells Fargo’s misdeeds fell under the more classic fraud umbrella, as it was revealed the company had fired thousands of employees for creating checking accounts and signing up users for credit cards without their knowledge. This was due in part to Wells Fargo’s selling techniques, which encouraged and rewarded salespeople for signing up as many customers as possible for multiple bank products.
Uber’s scandals have been many and varied in the last couple years, but have largely centered around its reputation as a company with a toxic workplace environment, and recent sexual harassment allegations only added fuel to this fire. Paired with that was the spate of sexual assaults by Uber drivers, calling into question passenger safety and the company’s standards for drivers. Then there were the data breaches and subsequent cover-up.
Now, let’s segue into the grading scale I’ll use to judge these advertisements. First off, any good apology must contain an admission of fault. It stands to reason that, if you are apologizing for something, you must have done something wrong in the first place. Skirting this line can make someone question whether it’s an apology at all.
Second, a corporate apology should conclude with an explanation of what you are doing differently. Contrition without behavioral change is not contrition. The audience — the person or people who were wronged — needs to believe that by admitting fault, you intend not to make the same error again. This explanation showcases what you will do to fix the mistake, or, more relevant to corporations who are punished by outside bodies, prevent it from occurring again in the future.
And lastly, what may be the most important aspect of an apology: sincerity. If you can’t convince your audience you are truly sorry, what is the point of apologizing in the first place? This is more of a subjective criterion, but vital to have nonetheless.
Each of these aspects will be rated on a scale — call it the 3Point scale — with 3 being excellent, 2 being average, and 1 being lacking.
Admission of Fault: 1
Almost immediately, Facebook’s apology begins to lose its luster. It catches us in the beginning with some reminiscing on the “good times,” before bringing up the controversy by stating simply, “But then something happened.”
Then we get a flurry of the transgressions. Spam, clickbait, fake news, data misuse. All stated as factual, as events that just so happened to occur. What Facebook fails to do is admit culpability in these issues.
Taking a more in-depth look, the language of this apology makes it fall apart even further. By discussing “we,” the narrator is equating us — a normal user — with the people in the company. We all use Facebook, so we all experience these same things, right? But it becomes problematic when they continue to use this. The narrator states “We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news, data misuse.” They blur the line between corporation and customer, which in turn blurs the line of fault. If Facebook and its upper-level employees (We are looking at you, Mr. Zuckerberg) had to deal with these issues just as much as we did — which is what this language insinuates — they are victims just as much as we are.
Obviously, that’s not true. Just admit you did something wrong, Facebook, instead of trying to jump over the line and get on our side.
Call to Action: 2
Thankfully, Facebook gives us something here. The ad tells us Facebook will do “more” to protect our privacy, that “things will change.” At least they are trying, right?
But in the immortal words of George R.R. Martin, “words are wind.” I’d believe Facebook more if the company told us specifically what it plans to do, instead of issuing vague statements that change will be pursued.
Overall, Facebook’s commercial does a good job of provoking nice feelings — we believe Facebook when it claims to have enjoyed the “good times” the platform creates. And yet, as an apology goes, it is very lacking.
One of the biggest problems regarding its sincerity is the absence of senior leadership in the video. Instead of a person apologizing to us, it is this ephemeral voice speaking on behalf of a massive corporation. Granted, putting Zuckerberg’s face in front of a camera may not have been the best move given his public image right now, but nevertheless, the apology is missing a personal touch — a touch necessary for us to think it sincere.
Admission of Fault: 2
Thankfully, Wells Fargo doesn’t make a similar mistake to Facebook’s, and claims responsibility by stating, “we lost it,” referring to people’s trust in the company. It’s an acceptable admission of fault, but held back from being excellent as it seems too quickly glossed over in the video — like the company is quickly trying to forget about it.
Call to Action: 3
Here is where Wells Fargo succeeds the most. The company understands that the lost trust isn’t immediately restored with this video, that it must be earned. Wells Fargo showcases an even greater understanding of this fact by titling the video “Earning Back Your Trust,” as well as describing a “recommitment to you.”
And even more successfully, the ad gives us a specific! The company doesn’t just make what could be baseless claims of earning trust and forgiveness; it tells us that Wells Fargo will “end product sales goals for branch managers,” a statement that we can later verify to gauge if the company truly made an effort to earn trust back. These types of specific plans for change are the way to make an average corporate apology a great one.
Unfortunately, Wells Fargo succumbs to the same issue as Facebook — a lack of senior leadership. We don’t know who is in charge anymore — unless you’ve stayed up-to-date on the news of the scandal, you don’t even know if the upper management that allowed this controversy to happen are still in control. That lack of clarity and personal touch make the apology less successful.
Admission of Fault: 1
Unfortunately, Uber’s apology starts off on a bad foot — it never explicitly states that the company is sorry for its actions in the past. The rampant sexual harassment allegations and aggressive-workplace complaints that have plagued Uber may not have made victims of the general public, yet some remorse should be shown for perpetuating systemic issues in our society. Regarding the direct victims — the affected employees — we are also left unsure whether Uber has truly apologized to them, either. As for the data breaches, there is nothing that even alludes to Uber’s actions.
Call to Action: 3
After a rough start, here is where Uber’s apology begins to succeed. The ad spends a short bit of time commiserating on past successes (this seems to be a common theme in all of these apologies), before beginning to emphasize a “new direction” the company will direct itself in. New leadership and a new culture will take over, and beyond that, Uber demonstrates a willingness to improve by giving us specific examples of how it will do so. Specific improvements to service, including better rider pickup and ride quality for riders and drivers, are stated to inform us that these changes are not just empty words.
Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO of Uber, seems to have heard my previous complaints and steps to the forefront in this video. He puts his face on the screen, and even shows us his name in large lettering in the middle of the screen. Not only does this work to present a new face and name for the company, disassociating Uber from previous CEO Travis Kalanick, it showcases an effort to make a personal connection with the public, which feels all the more genuine in comparison to the nameless voice-overs in the other videos.
This personal connection allows the previous call to action to feel sincere. It is much easier to trust a face and a name than a corporation, and Uber showcases an understanding of that fact here.
This is how a corporate apology succeeds — by showing us the person who will make sure it won’t happen again. A new voice shows us that change has occurred. A new face gives us something we can learn to trust again.
Do you agree with our rankings of these campaigns? Do you accept any of the apologies? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Let us know in the comments.