Last week it was Ryan Lochte's false apology and 10-month suspension from competitive swimming that made headlines in PR crisis news. This week the honor goes to Wells Fargo. The crow is extra crisp for the nation's biggest bank as it navigates the firing of 5,300 employees and $185M in fines and another $5M in remediation to customers, announced on Sept. 9. This news comes down in a 7-day period that also included apologies for a poorly-conceived ad campaign to teens on Sept. 3 that appeared dismissive of careers in the arts ("Today a ballerina. Tomorrow an engineer.")

As presented by integrity coach Dr. David Gruder, Well's Fargo's statement meets most of the four criteria of accountability:

1) Acknowledgement of full role in the problem;

2) Acceptance and acknowledgement of all consequences, including those that are unintended*;

3) Actions of restitution, and

4) Plan of action and commitment to ensure the problem never happens again.

*On the unintended consequences, the Wells Fargo statement misses. What Wells Fargo has just experienced (and the world has witnessed) is a complete and systemic breakdown in culture that extends from the top office on down. While top leaders certainly didn't know about or authorize the illegal behavior, by putting short-term profit pressure above all else (without accompanying attention to ethics training and culture support), the executives are guilty as sin for the unintended results.

Furthermore, the statement is dry and sterile. It was clearly executed under the direction of lawyers and intended primarily for the eyes of regulators and investors.

While the company confirms its commitment to restitution and to training and policies to reinforce the company's future, there is no message to address the emotions or betrayal being experienced by the customers and remaining employees.

So as an entrepreneur or small business, what can you learn?

  1. Consider your audience. You are not likely publicly held. While it was perhaps legally imperative that Wells Fargo consider regulators above all else, in the event of an integrity breach or a disruption of service, you are in a position to think first (or at least equally) about your customers and current employees, and perhaps secondly about your investors and board.
  2. Think about all consequences, both intended and not. How much better, in a situation like this one, to simply acknowledge in the words of your choosing, "Hey, we really messed up." The culture of this company, at its very core, has been broken. What entrepreneur has not experienced the pain of not working hard enough to instill a culture of accountability and then been suddenly confronted with the unwelcome results? (I've been there.) Entrepreneurs are often guilty of believing too much in the wrong people--perhaps through caring, expediency, or are under too much stress and pressure to notice the yellow flags of a broken system or an integrity breach. We--like Wells Fargo--would be better off to simply "own it" when the worst has happened instead of reacting with a dry and sterile response.
  3. Become a case study for a better future. As you recover from your worst PR days, leave the transparency veil open as you work to instill programs for a better future. Co-opt your employees and other influencers into the process as you move forward. Track the results.

One thing Wells Fargo did well in phase one of the crow double serving: Enlist the help of high-influence partners. As Wells Fargo is, in actuality, a strong proponent of careers in the arts, the company's Wells Fargo Foundation provides theater grants and other donations that amounted to $281.3 million for 16,300 nonprofits and schools in 2015, according to reporting by Ragan.com.

Actor and celebrity @WilliamShatner acknowledged the company's support for his Hollywood Charity Horse Show in a Sept. 8 Tweet, illustrating what Ragan reporter Russell Working notes is a point of wisdom many PR pros fully get: When Twitter blows up, get your influential partners and friends to jump in.

Published on: Sep 10, 2016