Opinion

Hey CommBank, if you want forgiveness for your terrorism comedy start by apologising like you mean it

So how did such a good marketing organisation get it so wrong?

And why is CommBank still getting it wrong now?

Apart from a minimalist apology-that-wasn’t-much-of-an-apology, the bank is now robotically repeating the same line to anyone who comments on its Facebook page: “We accept responsibility for this and we moved quickly to remove this viral video from our YouTube channel. We have tightened our controls as a result of this.”

So how did it unfold?

I came across the video on the company’s YouTube channel on Wednesday night. I struggled to believe what I was seeing. Comedy capers involving suspicious backpacks at London landmarks are too close to home for anyone who had loved ones in the city on the day of the 7/7 bombings.

And I suspect that this is the first place where it went wrong for CommBank.

A declaration of interest: For me it’s personal on a couple of levels.

I still remember every minute of the morning of July 7 2005. Just a day after the excitement of London winning the Olympics, suicide bombers detonated backpacks on tube trains and a bus, and killed 52 civilians. I was many miles away, but like the colleagues around me spent anxious hours waiting for news about people I knew. Since then, I’ve never been able to travel on the Underground without viewing people with backpacks with nervousness. Right now a close relative is working in London in the sort of role that includes checking backpacks.

So it’s hard to come at this one neutrally.

In part it’s about having experienced something. I wasn’t in Australia for the Bali attack. Clearly it was an atrocity, but I probably don’t feel it as rawly as I would if I had been here at the time, and been part of the national experience. The same, I suspect goes for the CommBank team in London – they just didn’t get why this was not something to be making comedy about.

So I wasn’t surprised that soon after we posted a story about it, it began to snowball.

What bothers – and puzzles – me more though is that they still don’t seem to get it.

Hours went by between my original phone call for comment and any sort of response. In part, because many of the senior comms team was asleep in London enjoying the Olympic junket.

And the eventual apology came across as seriously grudging. A bit like that formulation “I apologise if I offended anyone”, which carried the implication “but I don’t think I did anything wrong”.

Here it is in full: “The Commonwealth Bank apologises for the online video released to its YouTube Channel. We acknowledge some concerns were raised and the material was withdrawn this morning.”

For a brand that’s messed up, it was hopelessly inadequate.

Then came the comments from CMO Andy Lark, reported by B&T that the story was “not even newsworthy”.

Although The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, Fox Sports, The Australian Financial Review, the Courier Mail, Adelaide Now, WA Today, Perth Now, Brisbane Times, Canberra Times,  The Herald Sun, news.com.au, The Launceston Times, Hawkesbury Gazette, Maroondah Weekly, Gloucester Avocate, Moonee Valley Weekly, The Drum UK, Finextra, Macedon Ranges Weekly, Hume Weekly, Penrith Star, Cobar Age, Bombala Times, Monash Weekly, Blacktown Sun, The Transcontinental, Tenterfield Star, Whyalla News and Today Tonight are a small fraction among the newsdesks that disagree.

The puzzling thing is that my personal impression is that Andy Lark is very smart – and has a PR background. I’m an admirer. But I don’t think the brand has got to grips with this. A full – and sincere apology could have turned it into a one day story.

Logically, I know there is little reason to be offended. It was clearly meant lightheartedly. They weren’t glorifying terrorism – they were portraying a silly prank at the expense of a comedy caricature. And yet, fairly or not, I got angry, and clearly many others did too.

The bank is probably being just as logical in its tone that those who are offended are somewhat churlishly overreacting.

And yet, I find myself unable to shake the thought: I’m not forgiving you until you apologise like you fucking mean it.

Tim Burrowes

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