Corporate apologies

October 24th, 2018

Advertising apologies

In a recent television commercial, Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO of Uber, is shown talking to employees and riding around in a car driven by one of the ridesharing app’s drivers. In a voiceover, Khosrowshahi promises to listen and be more responsive to the needs of those using the app and those affected by Uber’s growth. The commercial is, in essence, an apology for a number of high-profile public relations failures during the tenure of founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick.

Uber’s commercial is just one example among many where companies have invested in advertising campaigns to apologize for their public blunders. In the aftermath of a scandal where its employees created millions of fake accounts to meet sales goals, Wells Fargo invested in a series of ads both to apologize to customers and to promise that the bank had recommitted to “a new day.” In another set of ads, pizza chain Papa John’s thanked its customers for expressing their anger and disappointment over the racist comments made by its eponymous founder and former CEO.

In years past, many public relations strategists would have simply advised corporations to move forward from public scandals without dwelling too much on the past. A company might offer a cursory apology in a short press release, but rarely would it draw attention to its mistakes as part of an expensive, long-running ad campaign. After all, companies typically create ads to associate their brand with positive feelings — not expressions of regret. Clearly, something has changed in our society that has convinced many companies that it’s worthwhile to acknowledge their mistakes and ask for the forgiveness of their customers.

Holding companies accountable

In the United States today, corporations are more powerful than they’ve ever been. Some, like Wells Fargo or Facebook, directly handle our money and personal information. Even companies without direct access to this kind of sensitive information can still make important institutional or political decisions that affect the lives of their employees and their standing with the public.

The fact that corporations apologize at all shows the extent to which they depend on consumer goodwill for their success. When a company does something the public finds objectionable or that actively harms their customers or their community, consumers have the power to hold them accountable for their actions.

In any broken relationship, including between corporations and the public at large, apologies are necessary to show that the offender understands what they’ve done wrong and that they desire to change. Sometimes, though, an apology is only meant to save face or sweep an issue under the rug. Alternatively, an apology may be made in earnest, but the promise of restitution or change may never be fulfilled.

While we may not be able to demand perfection from the companies we buy from, how should we decide whether to offer them forgiveness or if we should trust them with access to our sensitive information?

Asking for forgiveness and making amends

Yet another corporate scandal made headlines last spring when the manager of a Philadelphia-area Starbucks called police to have two black men arrested for sitting in the store while waiting for a friend. Public outrage ran high, but Starbucks didn’t fire the manager, nor did the company buy advertisements to apologize. Instead, Kevin R. Johnson, the CEO of Starbucks, posted a personal apology on the Starbucks website. In his apology, Johnson acknowledged that the issue of racism wasn’t the failure of just one person, but should be addressed throughout the organization. In response, the company closed 8,000 stores in the United States for an afternoon so its employees could engage in training and conversations about racial bias.

Some have criticized Starbucks, saying it’s naive to expect an afternoon of training to change people’s long-held biases — but we must admit that this action probably did more to express real remorse and to remedy the situation than spending millions on an ad campaign would have.

Every parent knows it’s possible to apologize without being truly sorry. While many corporate apologies are truly offered in the interests of acknowledging wrongdoing and being transparent about the organization’s efforts to change, others are made as cynical attempts to quickly buff up a tarnished image — less “We’re sorry” than “We’re sorry we got caught!”

Responding to an apology

Whether an apology comes from a corporation or from a friend or family member, it can be difficult to discern what constitutes a true apology. But no matter who is apologizing, the next step can be even more challenging: How do we respond to that apology? Depending on the relationship and the severity of the offense, it might be very difficult to forgive the offender, whether they’re a company or someone close to us. This can be the case even when the offender is truly remorseful.

In the Bible, this move toward forgiveness and reconciliation was described more as a process than a single act. Whoever was at fault must first turn away from their wrongdoing and humbly ask for the pardon of the person they had harmed. Only then could they try to make amends (Numbers 5:5-7; Matthew 5:23-24). However, in other circumstances, forgiveness was offered preemptively as an invitation from the injured party to the one who had hurt them. Either way, forgiveness and reconciliation were a mutual act that required work beyond an apology.

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