Crisis comms sees a new tactic: Apology ads on TV

Facebook, Uber and Wells Fargo have all taken to the airwaves to bring their mea culpas into consumers’ living rooms and mobile devices. How much impact are they making?

Coming soon to a TV near you: a major mea culpa in HD.

Typically, companies facing a public relations crisis will distribute apologies via press releases and posts on their websites and social media accounts. Some might apologize in full-page newspaper ads.

Facebook, Uber and Wells Fargo are investing substantial sums on television apology ads.

Reputation management experts say that a print-only strategy is no longer adequate and that broadcast apologies have become necessary to earn back consumer trust.

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Social media helps people spread negative stories to more people more quickly. It has changed the environment by giving customers a place to share grievances and spread their views.

As a result, companies feel more pressure to respond and engage and have cast aside legal advice to avoid apologizing for fear that admitting guilt would increase legal liability. PR and crisis management consultants can now more easily persuade corporate leaders to publicly apologize and even pay for apology ads.

Splurge on TV

Facebook, Uber and Wells Fargo now judge their PR situations grim enough to warrant expensive television ads. The companies are employing online polls, focus groups and social media monitoring to measure the impact of their campaigns.

Responses from media pundits and PR experts have ranged from sarcastic to critical. The first step of an effective apology is admitting wrongdoing and accepting blame.

The slick productions, filled with smiling customers, seem to fall short in that regard: Although commentators called them “apology ads,” none mentioned the word “apology” or “sorry.”

‘… something happened …’

Facebook is trying to restore public trust after Cambridge Analytica collected data from millions of users without the network’s knowledge or permission. Problems with pervasive fake news and reports of Russian election interference have deepened consumers’ distrust in Facebook.

Facebook’s ad bemoaned how the once blissful network was spoiled “when something happened. We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news and data misuse.” The company will protect data privacy to return to the good old days of connecting friends, the ad vowed.

Expected continue through the summer, the campaign includes ads in digital and print outlets, billboards, movie theaters and mass transit. Facebook spent almost $30 million on just the TV portion of the campaign as of May 29, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Trust our cowboy past

Wells Fargo suffered a reputational blow—and a $1 billion fine—after its employees created millions of fake customer accounts to meet sales quotas and slapped unneeded insurance premiums on auto loans.

The Wells Fargo ad, filled with black-and-white images of stage coaches and steamboats, relies on the bank’s long history as it tries to regain public confidence.

Unlike the other ads, it refers to a specific incident as the voiceover mentions that the bank has ended product sales goals for branch bankers. It spent $21.5 million on its “Earn Back Your Trust” TV campaign in May.

A new CEO in the driver’s seat

Uber has seen a series of negative news, including management scandals, driver mistreatment, sexual harassment accusations, and allegations of a data breach cover-up.

Its ad features new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who says Uber will move in a new direction, with new leadership and a new culture. Khosrowshahi says the company will improve service for its riders and drivers. When a problem happens, it will be open and will take responsibility for fixing it.

The ride-booking service spent almost $10 million on TV ads in the U.S.

Critiques of the apology ads

Apology best practices call for acknowledging the mistake and accepting responsibility. Facebook’s ad flouts that guideline with its segue, “But then something happened…”

The ad tacitly absolves Facebook of the blame for problems that it created, says New York Magazine columnist Brian Feldman. Facebook created the problems listed, except for perhaps spam, through its own deliberate decisions. It designed its newsfeed algorithm to spread fake news and clickbait, and it practically invited outsiders to steal users’ data.

Khosrowshahi, who obliquely refers to Uber’s cultural issues, also avoids the company’s past problems, says Becky Honeyman, a managing partner at SourceCode Communications, a crisis PR firm. He says he’s there to accept a challenge but doesn’t say what created that challenge.

“The thing that unites all three of these is there is a glossing over of what happened,” Honeyman told MSN. “They need to express remorse, take responsibility and then say what’s going to change.”

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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