Wells Fargo, Uber, and Facebook want to move on. But they keep screwing up

Sorry 2018 is the year of the corporate mea culpa, especially in the Bay Area. Wells Fargo, Uber, and Facebook are all running campaigns to repair their reputations from scandals.

Wells Fargo is pledging to “re-dedicate” itself to customers after admitting the San Francisco bank had boosted sales by creating millions of millions of fraudulent accounts in the names of real consumers.

New Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi promises “a new day” at the San Francisco ride hailing company whose culture of sexual misconduct helped launched the #MeToo movement.

Facebook has plastered ads all over BART stations, warning consumers that “Fake News is not your friend.” The Menlo Park company says it’s trying to do a better job on combating misinformation Russian spies spread on its social network to influence elections.

That’s all well and good. But here’s the big problem: all three companies keep screwing up, or at least appear that they are still screwing up.

Beyond the account scandal, Wells Fargo continues to deal with wave and wave of corporate misbehavior. The company recently agreed to pay $1 billion to regulators for improperly charging consumers in its auto lending and mortgage businesses. Now the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is reportedly investigating the company for charging consumers for products they didn’t need or understand, including pet insurance and legal services.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi

Despite Khosrowshahi’s promises to clean up the culture, Uber human resources chief Liane Hornsey recently resigned after she allegedly (and ironically) discriminated against the executive in charge of diversity.  Also, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is reportedly investigating Uber for paying its female employees a lot less than men.

And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently apologized for seeming to condone Holocaust deniers. He was actually trying to explain, rather ineptly, why Facebook would not remove InfoWars, the website which peddles far-right conspiracy theories, from the social network.

These continued missteps undermines the central premise of the mea culpa campaigns: that these companies are moving past their mistakes. When you’re in the public eye, you really have only one shot to get an apology right. Otherwise, at worst, you look disingenuous; at best, you look incompetent.

But the real problem is the idea that something as superficial as a one time marketing campaign can properly address a serious deficiency present at each company: that the CEOs and boards still really don’t understand the businesses they are leading or the problems they are trying to solve.

With Wells Fargo, the company never fully took responsibility for the fraud. The bank continues to blame individual executives and rogue employees instead of holding its board of directors accountable for failing to oversee the business. As a result, the Federal Reserve took the unprecedented step of ordering Wells Fargo to fire directors and capping the size of the bank until they get their shit together. This is the same board that CEO Tim Sloan insisted a year ago (at a corporate governance conference no less) was “exceptional.”

Khosrowshahi seems like a decent enough fellow. But how can you claim a “new day” at Uber when you’re still trying to put out fires from the previous day? In fact, since the beginning of the year, at least 10 top executives have left the company, including folks Uber had hired for the specific purpose of helping it turn the page, including chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John.

As for Facebook, Zuckerberg continues to confound. Despite leading Facebook since its inception 14 years ago, Zuckerberg still seems confused and tentative, as if he still doesn’t quite grasp the power and influence of company he created.

He was MIA for several days after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. The InfoWars/Holocaust gaffe was a complete unforced error. First of all, Zuckerberg was speaking to ReCode founder Kara Swisher, possibly the friendliest interviewer he is ever going to get. Swisher is known for her close ties to Silicon Valley (she is a frequent, first name dropper), which explains her scoops and why Zuckerberg chose her in the first place.

Instead of taking this gimme, Zuckerberg fumbled over InfoWars and then made it worse with the apparent defense of Holocaust denial. How InfoWars’ conspiracy theories are somehow different from fake news, which Facebook’s marketing campaign tells us is not our friend, is beyond me and apparently Zuckerberg.

To be truly sorry, you must specifically identify the wrongdoing and then take steps to prevent it from happening again. In the case of Wells Fargo, Uber, and Facebook, these companies seem to demonstrate only a superficial knowledge of the former, which is why they keep screwing up the latter.

After all, you can’t be sorry for something when you’re not even completely sure what you’re sorry for.



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