PR Roundup: Online Banking Woes, TikTok Shutdowns, Amazon Frowns on ‘Smile’

the friday news dump

When a company or organization makes changes or endures a PR crisis, it must consider a range of stakeholders, including investors and executives, but also employees, customers, members and vendors. It’s rarely all about profits, but reputation and trust too. 

This week's notable PR items and stories showcase change. Sometimes, change can lead to an unintended PR incident or crisis if communication is handled poorly.   

Zelle Snafu Gives Bank of America a Headache

What happened? Many Zelle customers logged into their accounts Jan. 18, but found funds not transferring or even missing. Some discovered their Bank of America (BOA) Zelle accounts overdrawn. Customers complained on social, particularly after they were unable to reach BOA's busy customer service department. 

Zelle responded in the Daily News, blaming BOA (a part-owner of Zelle), saying transactions outside of BOA accounts were not impacted. At around 3 p.m. ET, BOA said the issue was resolved. It provided no details of how or why the incident occurred. 

Communication lessons: Online banking is not new. Whether it's PayPal, Venmo or Zelle, Americans are comfortable using peer-to-peer, and now bank-to-customer, money management. While a majority (65.3%, per Statista) use digital banking at least weekly, earning trust in a world plagued with cybersecurity issues remains a common goal in the financial sector.

For BOA or Zelle users, the incident could damage trust.

“Banks and companies like Zelle build their business on trust,” said Elizabeth Kenigsberg, head of cybersecurity and technology at SKDK. “When that trust is violated, whether through a scam or a glitch, providers need to be as transparent as possible. Consumers should know if and how they were impacted and what the company is doing to fix the problem.”

While Zelle spoke through numerous articles and social media platforms, BOA seemed relatively silent.

It's called crisis communication for a reason. Alerting customers via frequent updates on multiple platforms is the norm these days. 

A Frown for AmazonSmile

What happened: While Amazon's layoffs created headlines, the retail giant surprised users when it said Jan. 19 that it's ending AmazonSmile, its charity program, next month. The company donates a portion of sales based on purchasers' charitable designations.

Consumers received notice through a nondescript email with the subject line: “Update on AmazonSmile.” The email said Smile lacked the hoped-for impact. However, Amazon said some internal charity projects will retain support

“We will continue to pursue and invest in other areas where we’ve seen we can make meaningful change—from building affordable housing to providing access to computer science education for students in underserved communities to using our logistics infrastructure and technology to assist broad communities impacted by natural disasters.”

Communication lessons: Many people have overflowing email inboxes. Amazon emails come in and out, many disguised as phishing attempts. People could glaze over such an announcement, or miss it as it goes to the junk mail folder. 

Outrage spread on social media. Charities—large and small—and their supporters debated Amazon’s claims that Smile lacked impact. 

 In The Verge, Barbara Krasnoff decried the announcement. “Sometimes I wish that the PR departments of these corporations could bring themselves to be a little more honest about these things,” Krasnoff wrote. 

Similarly, Dini von Mueffling, founder and CEO of Dini von Mueffling Communications, called for authenticity and transparency.  

“I would have liked to have seen a statement that talked about the pride that Amazon felt in having provided $500 million to the charities over the years the program existed, with a deft pivot to exactly why they chose to go in this new direction" and how it will provide "greater impact.”

Heather Desantis-Holmes, CEO and founder, Publicity for Good, said Amazon’s announcement has wide implications.  

“Consumers want to have the choice on where their money is going, especially when it comes to charitable organizations,” she says. “Alignment of values and beliefs when you make a donation is crucial.”

School's Out for TikTok 

What happened: University of Texas banned TikTok from its campus Wi-Fi on Jan. 18. It's the latest of several colleges banning TikTok. The ousters came as 19 governors banned the video app's use on government-issued devices. Since 2021 the the Biden administration and Chinese-owned TikTok have negotiated security and privacy issues. Some lawmakers worry TikTok's owner's links to China's government make the app a national security risk.

Similarly, the EU has TikTok concerns.   

However, students may not go down without a fight. Two-thirds of U.S. teenagers use TikTok, second only to YouTube in social app popularity, according to Pew Research Center cited in a New York Times article. The article describes workarounds college users can employ to defeat detection.  

Communication lessons: There always are workarounds.

Remember Napster in the early 2000s? Other platforms popped up in its place.

The play here is educating students. Help them understand why banning TikTok is important. Communication should explain privacy concerns and issues in real terms and post on student forums and social media platforms. This could help students understand issues, at least until Washington and TikTok agree on privacy guidelines. 

Join us next Friday for another roundup. Until then, have a good week and try to stay out of a crisis!

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal