Crisis PR Lesson for Wells Fargo: Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

By Janet Quintero Pena

At last! Wells Fargo has announced CEO John Stumpf’s resignation.

As any professional crisis communications expert knows, you cannot – even if you’re the CEO of nation’s third largest bank – talk yourself out of something you’ve behaved yourself into. Stumpf and Wells Fargo executives seem to have finally learned that painful lesson.

The bank had been under a microscope for more than a month following the revelation that thousands of employees opened over two million fraudulent bank and credit-card accounts without customers’ consent, over several years.

Wells Fargo says it has reimbursed unauthorized fees and that it has fired more than 5,300 employees for engaging in the fraudulent practices. But Stumpf admitted to members of Congress that he had not fired any senior executives. Instead he had fired only lower level employees- their branch and regional managers- who as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren distinguished, “don’t have the money for a fancy PR firm to defend themselves.”

The fact is: the bank had fired the same employees it pressured to cross-sell a minimum of eight accounts to clients daily, all while Stumpf continued to push the blame onto everyone but himself.

After falling weary of the critics’ pressure Wells Fargo tried making peace offerings such as donating $250,000 to support Unite Charlotte, a community fund focused on minimizing discrimination and racial barriers in Charlotte. But for a misdeed so great, an act this small wasn’t nearly enough to win back the trust of customers and potential clientele that Wells Fargo has declared it seeks to recover.

Stumpf’s resignation was the sacrificial act necessary to help Wells Fargo begin to dig itself out of its mess and start the healing process.

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Janet Quintero Pena is a Research Associate at kglobal.