Nothing hurts a brand’s public relations image more than charges of dishonesty, greed and manipulative behavior. This is exactly the PR mess American Express finds itself mired in today after agreeing to pay $85 million to customers it exploited–in addition to $27.5 million in civil fines.
Yep, that’s a $112.5 million penalty for treating its own customers like dupes. Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, explains in this Washington Post article that American Express violated laws designed to protect consumers “at all stages of the game — from the moment a consumer shopped for a card to the moment the consumer got a phone call about long overdue debt.”
As PR professionals, all we can do upon hearing this type of news is to throw up our hands and bang our heads on our desks. This is beyond inexcusable; it’s inexplicable. American Express, an iconic and trusted brand, must know better than this. The American people are fed up with corruption, particularly in financial institutions, and this type of news can eradicate decades of good will earned by consistency, diligence and hard work. American Express has come too far to act so recklessly toward the very people who allow it to be profitable.
Financial relationships involve trust. People feel very strongly about their money, and when they feel they’ve been robbed by the very institutions in which they’ve invested their faith (and their money), the reactions are often visceral. We’re talking zombie apocalypse visceral.
Now comes the public reaction and the answer to the question of the day: Will consumers bypass the usual contempt and outrage? Are Americans so exhausted and so jaded that they’ll just receive their check and apologetic missive in the mail while apathetically muttering, “Meh. Who cares. This is just the way things are”?
We certainly hope not. But we wouldn’t be surprised.