Bad News For Bank Exposes PR Trend

Just reading the New York Times column about U.S. Bank is a punch to the gut of anyone who works in PR, specifically media relations.

A call center worker says she was fired for trying to help a customer in need (on Christmas Eve!) and the bank comes across as soulless and, well, corporate, as too many consumers have come to expect.

It took the international shame from the column running Saturday online on the Times’ website for the company’s CEO to say, finally, that he’ll “fix this.”

Without being on the conference calls and in the conference rooms, it’s impossible to know exactly how this went down inside U.S. Bank. But experience informs that this could very well be part of a trend we’re starting to see more of inside corporations.

There’s a culture of executive protection that has long existed in big companies. But it’s getting more pronounced. Instead of holding up a mirror to the company in times of bad news, the communications function, allied with the legal department, builds a wall of words between the public and the “C-Suite.” Rather than PR counseling a CEO, PR tries to make sure the CEO is kept at a distance from any bad news. Too often, PR works closely with legal to gather facts and then, essentially, become a statement factory.

Too often, the point of view that attention from a major outlet could serve as a chance to to repair is eclipsed by frustration that the attention from a “top-tier” makes an uncomfortable situation feel worse inside the company.

Maybe the post-script to the Times’ column could have been the lead? But the default setting in corporate communications in the current environment so rarely allows for that to happen. Yes, companies do make mistakes. Yes, it’s more than OK to admit them when it happens. It’s actually advisable. In cases of bad news, it’s far more favorable to admit, explain then fix rather than letting the victim of the mistake dictate the narrative.

This situation brings back a line in a speech that had previously been tucked away in the memory bank. Nearly 20 years ago, at a big corporation’s annual conference of its PR and ad agencies and in-house communications staff, the company’s COO shared the assembled group something he had told an all-employee gathering just days before. He wanted communicators to know about it, so they understood where the culture was heading, perhaps making our jobs just a little bit easier.

He told employees “You’ll never be fired for making a customer happy.”

That’s a good mantra that benefits HR, PR, legal and especially the executives so many companies work so hard to protect. Seems like it’s past time for other companies to adopt it.