Facebook and Uber Apology Ads Don’t Do Enough to Win Back Consumer Trust, Alone

Is it too late to say sorry now?

2018 has been a hard year for Facebook and Uber, two relatively young tech companies that have become titans in their respective industries. Facebook was called in to court when news broke that Cambridge Analytica had collected millions of people’s private Facebook data to help influence how voters felt about political candidates. Uber has dealt with criticism over aggressive corporate culture and sexual assault accusations. Both companies have suffered blows to their brand image that threaten to undermine years of massive growth and alienate their core audience.

To counteract these stories, both companies have embarked on rehabilitation tours. They’ve shuffled their executive teams, updated their company values, and released ads that directly apologize for the scandals that plagued their brands. Facebook reminisced about their past, whereas Uber focused on moving forward. Have the brands been able to turn their reputations around? Or are consumers looking for more?

When Uber and Facebook were promising startups, consumers saw them for their potential. Now that they’re global giants, consumers are more likely to fixate on their negatives. This shift can be seen in the words consumers use to describe the two companies online. Here is how the most common negative words used in the brands’ conversations changed between 2013 and 2018.

The shift over those years is telling. The negative conversation about Facebook in 2013 was what you’d expect for a social network — words like “annoying” or “dumb” or “boring” as opposed to 2018, where “data,” “information,” and “hack” make the list. This reveals Facebook’s current problems, like data security leaks influencing elections. A boring but addictive social platform is one thing, but a global company accused of improperly handling consumer data and spreading “fake news” is quite another.

A similar situation can be seen with Uber.

Back in 2013, the main words coming up in negative sentiment conversations were garden variety, such as “expensive” and “annoying,” compared to 2018 when “police,” “kill,” “weapons,” “threats,” and “grabbed’ all feature prominently in the negative conversation. Like Facebook, Uber’s evolving problems are apparent, as many consumer conversations now focus on assaults and law-breaking.

As Facebook and Uber have grown, so have their problems, and not just in number but also in the impact these problems take on those they serve. So what are they doing to combat this?

Sorry isn’t Enough

Uber and Facebook both released apology ads this year. In these commercials, Facebook tries to remind their users of how good the website used to be when it was just about connecting with friends, and Uber discusses its plans for the future and how they will correct their wrongs.

These apology ads are a clear indication that improving brand image is a top priority for both companies. But were they effective at actually moving consumer sentiment?

It turns out that these ads didn’t really have an impact on the brand image, other than maybe reminding people of all the wrongs they had initially done.

With Facebook, the dip in brand health after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke is clear. The brand’s image began to rebuild after the news died down, with another dip in mid-April when Zuckerberg testified in court. However, brand image resumed normal sentiment until the apology ad airs, which caused a dip in the sentiment. A dip in sentiment is exactly the opposite of what Facebook wanted. The ad reminded people of what went wrong, but then sentiment returned to normal.

People are still unhappy with Facebook, saying that an apology doesn’t make up for their wrongdoings.

Uber sees a similar trend after they released their own apology ad.

Immediately after the apology ad aired, there was a dip in sentiment likely because it reminded consumers of the scandals that had angered them in the first place.

Similar to Facebook, Uber’s sentiment resume normalcy soon after the dip happened, albeit with more volatility.

But the real question is: If a multi-million dollar mea culpa isn’t enough, what is? How can these brands more effectively turn customer opinion around?

Actions Speak Louder than Words

So how do corporations handle PR problems of this magnitude? As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and people don’t just want an apology ad — they’re looking for action.

Saying you’re sorry isn’t always enough to win back consumers’ hearts or trust. People don’t want a flashy commercial where companies acknowledge what went wrong and then think that everything is fixed. This strategy often seems disingenuous to the consumer and people only see it as a PR quick fix.

So to truly win back consumer trust, companies should listen to what their customers are actually saying. For example, Uber’s apology ad didn’t specifically acknowledge much of what they planned to do, and consumers noticed.

People want specific actions done when a company has made a mistake. Some time after the apology ad was released, Uber made a policy change that allowed sexual assault victims to bring their case to court publicly, if they chose to do so, instead of requiring a non-disclosure agreement and private arbitration.

This policy change was a significant part of the Uber conversation upon that announcement.

The conversation topics show that people are looking for more concrete changes to corporate culture than just an apology ad, and when those changes are made, people will talk about it. Sweeping change to a corporation might not be the easiest solution, but the easiest way out of a scandal is rarely the best way, but taking these steps will get the best attention.

If Facebook wants to change the consumer conversation around its brand, the company needs to follow Uber’s lead and make measurable change to their organization, or face more and more criticism by doing the same old thing.

The people want answers and actions, not apologies.

For more information on handling a PR crisis, see this blog: Act Fast, Recover Quickly

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