Why Can’t Wells Fargo Get Out of its own Way?

Quick, can you tell me how many years it’s been since Wells Fargo was one of the most trusted and appreciated brands in the financial sector? Don’t worry, most people can’t. In fact, Wells Fargo, as a brand, seems to have given up trying to answer that question. The company’s most recent ad campaigns are going almost all the way back to the beginning, talking about events – whether true or apocryphal – that transpired a century ago or more.

But, even as the ads are taking viewers all the way back, the brand itself seems to keep ending up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. This continued habit of taking bad and making it worse, has a lot of people wondering why Wells Fargo can’t seem to get out of its own way. If the company could stop long enough to focus on a single PR crisis, they may make some headway in brand confidence, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

That lack of ability to get past one crisis before another negative headline drops has some in the PR business blaming not just a few bad apples but a “faulty culture” for the continued woes. Instead of arguing that Wells Fargo was just too big and too desperate to play it straight, some are saying the company simply lost its way, slipping further into a morass that festered for years, creating a series of interwoven issues up and down the leadership chain.

The result? A culture that allowed the company to miss it when thousands of employees created millions of fake credit accounts, many in the names of very real customers. Thousands of employees were fired, and that could have been that. Wells Fargo should have been able to pick itself up, dust itself off, and get moving again.

Unfortunately, those in charge didn’t look at thousands of bad actors and see a cultural issue. They said everything was fine now that those folks were gone. Turns out, almost no one, including elected officials and federal regulators, agreed with that assessment. Soon, the CEO was sent packing. A new leader, Timothy Sloan, was brought in and given the task of giving Wells Fargo a fresh start.

But the optics were terrible. Sloan, after all, was a longtime Wells Fargo guy, and those who saw institutional corruption didn’t see renewal coming from within. Worse than the optics, though, was the messaging. While Wells Fargo promised to do better, their campaigns failed to take responsibility, and the problems were rarely, if ever, addressed.

Then came more horrendous headlines. Charging customers for insurance they didn’t want and never asked for. Hitting mortgage customers with incorrect fees. And the insult to injury, a “computer glitch” that accidentally foreclosed on hundreds of properties. Fines were levied and headlines were merciless. Wells Fargo could not seem to stop driving into the proverbial ditch.

And, speaking of poor optics, in response to the flurry of negative headlines, Wells Fargo CFO John Shrewsbury went after the media, accusing the news of over-emphasizing and over-dramatizing Wells Fargo’s missteps. While he may have a point, it certainly was not one that millions of jaded customers was in any mood to hear.

And that, in a nutshell, may signal why the company can’t seem to get back in the good graces of their customers. Instead of changing in the present they are offering visions of the past and complaints of unfair treatment.

Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian
5WPR Founder & CEO Ronn Torossian is a native New Yorker. Torossian has grown his PR Agency, 5W Public Relations, into a top 25 United States PR Firm. The company is headquartered in the iconic Helmsley Building in midtown Manhattan. Ronn resides with his children on the Upper East Side of New York City. Author of best selling PR Book "For Immediate Release", you can find regular contributions of Ronn's writing on the Huffington Post, Business insider, Fox News, Everything-PR, the Observer, Wired Insights and many other publications.
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