From AT&T to Facebook, the corporate apology tour is in full swing

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Mistakes were made, America.

AT&T circulated a memo to employees Friday that called its $600,000 payment to a shell company set up by Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in exchange for political influence a “big mistake.” 

“To be clear, everything we did was done according to the law and entirely legitimate,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in an internal memo obtained by Reuters. “But the fact is, our past association with Cohen was a serious misjudgment.”

Stephenson also said that the company’s chief lobbyist, Bob Quinn, was stepping down.

AT&T’s mea culpa comes close on the heels of one issued by Novartis CEO Vasant Narasimhan, whose pharmaceutical firm was revealed to have paid Cohen $1.2 million for an insider ticket to Trumpworld.

“We made a mistake in entering into this engagement and, as a consequence, are being criticized by a world that expects more from us,” Narasimhan wrote on Friday.

In his own letter to his employees, Narasimhan, who became CEO after the payments to Cohen’s Essential Consultants had been set up, vented about the personal toll the scandal was exacting in a way that seemed ripe for parody in a “South Park” episode

“Personally and for my family, yesterday was also a difficult day, as unfounded stories spread through the U.S. news. While I was not involved with any aspect of this situation, the facts did not matter. I went to sleep frustrated and tired,” Narasimhan wrote, according to the letter, obtained by Politico. 

While these payments and the subsequent regrets may be news to most Americans, for special counsel Robert Mueller, they have been known for months. Mueller’s team of investigators questioned officials at AT&T and Novartis about their arrangement with Cohen last November, giving the CEOs ample time to craft their statements to the public.

One day of atonement earlier, Town & Country magazine tried to make amends to Monica Lewinsky after it was revealed that the publication had disinvited her to its annual philanthropic summit after Bill Clinton said he would attend.

Even before this busy week in the woodshed, the corporate apology routine had become all too common in 2018. In fact, it seems like every time one turns on the television or hops online, another admission from a company is there waiting.

In the wake of embarrassing disclosures about how Facebook spread Russian propaganda during the 2016 election campaign, the company took out an ad promising to “do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy.”

Wells Fargo’s new apology ad follows a script eerily familiar to Facebook’s. It attempts to remind consumers about the good old days of the brand, briefly acknowledge recent shortcomings — which in the bank’s case includes setting up millions of fraudulent accounts to meet sales goals — and then declare the crisis over. “It’s a new day at Wells Fargo!” the ad concludes.

Starbucks had its time in the barrel after a manager at a Philadelphia store called police on two African-American men who asked to use the restroom. In addition to the requisite apology, Starbucks will close all of its 8,000 stores on May 29 for an afternoon of sensitivity training.

Do these apologies work in helping foster forgiveness? The answer likely depends on the speed, context and sentiment of a given redress. The barrage of apologies can be numbing.

In just the last week, Sen. John McCain and his family have received apologies from Sen. Orrin Hatch, who criticized the cancer-stricken Republican Tuesday over his desire to keep Trump from attending his funeral. He’s heard regrets expressed by Fox Business host Charles Payne after a guest on his show, retired Air Force Lt. Gen.Thomas McInerney, falsely claimed that McCain had broken under torture as a prisoner of war. And his daughter Meghan fielded an apology call from White House special assistant Kelly Sadler, who had joked at a meeting that McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel “doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.”

Shortly after the remark was reported, McCain’s wife, Cindy, responded on Twitter.

Even after the apology, Meghan McCain wondered aloud why Sadler still had a job at the White House. Perhaps that’s because Trump, Sadler’s boss, is no fan of apologies. This, after all, is the man who once said of McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Simply put, for some brands, an apology is a matter of corporate survival. For others, not apologizing for anything is the brand itself.

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