Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Tech Companies Embark on a New Apology Tour

(Bloomberg) -- Last year in this space, we wrote about the epidemic of atonement that was spreading through the technology industry. Companies like Uber, HootSuite Media Inc. and Snap Inc. were asking for forgiveness for everything from Travis Kalanick's video-recorded tantrum in the back of an Uber cab to the way Snap's offices had impacted the tranquility of a Southern California beach community.

Those transgressions seem rather quaint now.

In the last week, TV viewers across the U.S. have been subjected to well-manicured expressions of regret from Facebook, Uber and Wells Fargo. In China, the ride-sharing juggernaut Didi Chuxing apologized profusely after a flight attendant was murdered by her driver on her way to the Zhengzhou airport. And just recently, Twitter expressed remorse after finding a bug that left user passwords unencrypted and exposed.

The TV apologies from Facebook and Uber are worth exploring further. In its ad, “Here Together,” Facebook tries to reset its relationship with its 200 million-some American members by reminding them why they signed up in the first place. “We came here for the friends,” intones a male narrator over clips of people dancing, hugging and snuggling babies. “We found others just like us, and just like that, we felt a little less alone.”

The ad references controversies like fake news and data misuse, which just may have subverted American democracy, but then vows that will all go away. “From now on, Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy.”

For many Facebook members, heart-warming posts from friends are still being overshadowed by polemical commentaries on the news and junky web links. It’s also interesting that Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is nowhere to be seen in the ad. The company seems to have decided that he doesn’t have the standing with a mainstream audience to deliver such a message of penance.

Uber reached a different conclusion. In its ad “Moving Forward,” new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi says, “It’s time to move in a new direction. And I want you to know just how excited I am to write Uber’s next chapter with you.” While he’s talking to the camera at the start and end of the commercial and narrating the rest, he’s mostly shown earnestly listening to employees.

Khosrowshahi, who doesn’t carry the heavy baggage of his predecessor, also says, “One of our core values as a company is to always do the right thing. And if there are times when we fall short, we commit to being open, taking responsibility for the problem and fixing it.” Uber hasn’t followed that path in the past. Its leaders are going to have to find ways to demonstrate it, rather than just pledging it, if they want to really change their image.

The ads are generally effective, though their repetition during the NBA playoffs, fans might attest, is approaching absurdity. I also wonder whether these national TV buys are alerting some people to the companies’ controversies. Not everyone has marinated in Silicon Valley drama over the past year.

There’s one more reason to doubt these tech companies want to have a sincere conversation with users. Both of the ads have been posted to YouTube, where they have garnered over 100,000 views each. And below the videos, both say the same thing: “Comments for this video are disabled.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.