Wells Fargo’s PR team juggling tandem crises

Unrelated reputational firestorms compel the bank to apologize twice within five days—but a lesson emerges: When in trouble, get backup.

It can’t be fun to do PR for a company when it’s in hot water on Twitter or facing massive penalties for alleged wrongdoing in the real world.

Now imagine responding to two such reputational crises within five days.

Welcome to Wells Fargo’s hell week.

On Thursday, the banking giant reported it would pay $185 million in fines and had fired 5,300 employees after the staffers allegedly created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts in customers’ names without their permission, CNN Money reported.

This followed a Sept. 3 firestorm on Twitter as ballerinas, actors and other creative types used their platforms to slap the bank senseless for an ad campaign whose message they interpreted as “get a real job!”

The latest mea culpa came as Wells Fargo took out ads Friday noting allegations that customers had received products and services they didn’t want. The bank cited changes it was making to prevent such problems in the future, such as automatic emails to customers and enhanced training and disciplinary measures.

“We truly regret and take full responsibility for any such instances and have refunded those customers who incurred fees,” Wells Fargo stated.

This followed a press statement Thursday noting the agreement the company had made with Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of the Los Angeles City Attorney.

Reached by Ragan.com and PRDaily.com, Oscar Suris, head of corporate communications for Wells Fargo & Co., cited the need for transparency.

“In any difficult situation, it is critical to be transparent, authentic, and visible,” Suris said in an email. “That is a basic tenet of how we operate, and certainly it was essential in how we managed this week.”

Thursday’s response seemed a tad dry to Brad Phillips of Phillips Media Relations. When I sought his thoughts on Twitter, Phillips, who tweets as @MrMediaTraining, replied:

Second helping of crow

The crow Wells Fargo ate must have tasted all the more feathery, given that the company had only just finished groveling over an ad campaign that seemed to denigrate aspiring young artists.

Last week, the bank set off a social media firestorm over ads for its Teen Financial Education Day which “touted smiling young people who had apparently seen the light. Next to one woman, the ad copy reads: ‘A ballerina yesterday. An engineer today,'” the San Francisco Business Times reported. “Another featuring a smiling young man reads: ‘An actor yesterday. A botanist today.'”

Hoo-boy. Want to get flamed by legions of highly creative people? Hint to ballerinas and actors that they would have been better off learning code rather than spending years doing barre exercises or memorizing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

“Broadway artists were quick to express their frustration at the campaign and to defend a career in the arts,” Playbill reported.

“Arts education saved my life and countless others. Artist life is beautiful,” tweeted Andy Mientus. “Don’t listen 2 @WellsFargo-it’s a trap.” Many others were seething, including Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, who is starring in “The Color Purple.”

Though unforced errors never look smart in retrospect, organizations must be tired of quaking in fear of the powder keg of Twitter outrage that can blow up with a tiny spark.

After all, plenty of parents (and plenty of professors in master of fine arts programs) have urged young creative spirts to have a backup plan until they land that Broadway role or multimillion-dollar Hollywood deal. As one Twitter user stated in response to Erivo, “I read this 2 mean every kid has a dream & then needs to prep for the reality 95% of us live.”

Still, Wells Fargo did what all organizations must do when they step in it: apologize. The New York Times noted this in an article headlined, “Sorry About That: Wells Fargo to End Ads Suggesting Science Over Arts.”

Lost in the kerfuffle, perhaps, was that Wells Fargo found backup from some artistic types whose charities the bank supports. For one thing, Wells Fargo Foundation offers theater grants and reportedly has given $281.3 million to 16,300 nonprofits and schools nationwide in 2015. Actor William Shatner was one grateful recipient.

This illustrates a point familiar to many PR pros. When Twitter blows up, get your partners to help defend you.

It might make your hell week a little easier to get through.


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