Sterling Bank: When Creativity Goes Awry

The groundswell of condemnation that greeted a controversial Easter Holiday advert placed by Sterling Bank Plc last week shows that some PR stunts can seriously be detrimental to a company’s image, reports Festus Akanbi

All over the world, businesses and governments worry about their perceptions from the members of the public. For businesses, it becomes necessary to reach out from time to time not only to their existing customers and business partners but also to the potential ones.

To get this done effectively, companies adopt various forms of public relations stunts in advertisements and promotions in such a way to bring them into the consciousness of their target customers.

Brand communications operators believe that if executed well, a PR stunt can catapult an unknown brand into the media spotlight but, as we have seen time and time again, not all PR stunts land with the intended impact and this can be seriously detrimental to a company’s image.

This is why Abigail Outwaite,  a United Kingdom PR practitioner explained that PRs should be cautious when it comes to stunts, not only because they have the potential to go wrong but because if they are not delivered properly, they can leave a brand in worse place reputationally than they were before. 

To watchers of the unfolding drama over the controversial advertisement placed by Sterling Bank to commemorate the Easter holiday last week, one cannot but conclude that when it comes to publicity stunts, there seems to be a very thin line between huge success and incredible failure.

 Stirring the Hornet’s Nest

Sterling Bank Plc came under fire for putting up a post that compared the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the rise of Agege bread on its social media page and subscribers’ mail. The bank which had stirred the hornet’s nest with its offending advert also compounded its problem with its more provocative response which critics described as a measure of the defiance of the bank’s handlers.

In its Easter celebration messages, the bank shared a post with the quote, “Like Agege Bread, He Rose” across its social media handles, but the message has drawn widespread criticism from many Christians. 

Public Outcry

On Sunday, social media users lampooned the bank and described the message as insensitive and insulting to Christians. Many users demanded that the post be brought down immediately and an apology be tendered by the bank.

A leading Marketing Communications expert, Mr. Chido Nwakanma, had counselled Sterling Bank management to throw its Corporate Communications team overboard at the earliest possible time if they wish to plead ignorance of its distasteful advert.

“Unless they are equally complicit, the management of Sterling Bank should clear its Corporate Corporate Communications team on Tuesday. Everyone involved in preparing and placing that obnoxious ad that pokes noxious fingers into the eyes of all Christians in Nigeria should not be involved in communications one day extra”, Mr. Nwakanma stated on his social media page. 

 He recalled that Sterling Bank committed a similar offence in 2018 with its “In shooting for the moon, men become stars” ad for which according to him, it similarly apologised. “Is that the Sterling Bank tradition? Put two feet in the mouth and then say sorry? Not good at all”, he submitted.

Initial Defiant Reaction

In its reaction to the harvest of criticisms, the bank pulled down the post on its social media page and subsequently uploaded another copy of an opened tomb significant to Christ’s departure from the grave and added the caption, ‘…let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone…’It posted in a new message, citing Jesus Christ’s response to those who accused a woman of adultery in the Bible.

“Forgive us in the spirit of Easter!” It added.

The defiant tone of the immediate response of the bank’s management to the offending advertorial added fuel to the public anger.

APCON Bares Fangs

The Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), in its reaction, described the advert as offensive and provocative. 

APCON also said the advert copy was not submitted for approval before it was made public. 

In a statement on Monday signed by its Registrar and Chief Executive, Olalekan Fadolapo, APCON said the advert was distasteful, noting that Sterling Bank Plc would be punished for the action. 

APCON described the advert as blasphemous and in bad taste.

 “The Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria has observed with displeasure the insensitive and provocative Easter celebration advertisement by Sterling Bank Plc which compared the resurrection of Christ with Agege bread. 

“The distasteful advertisement was neither submitted nor approved for exposure by the Advertising Standards Panel, the statutory panel charged with the responsibility of ensuring that advertisements conform with the prevailing laws of the federation as well as the code of ethics of Advertising in Nigeria. 

“APCON will take necessary actions to ensure that Sterling Bank is sanctioned for the exposure of such offensive advertisement according to law and that no religious belief or faith is ridiculed or any blasphemous advertisement exposed in any guise,” APCON said in a statement

CAN Gives Condition for Settlement 

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the umbrella body for Churches in Nigeria, on its part, demanded the sacking of the Chief Executive Officer of Sterling Bank, Abubakar Suleiman, over the controversial advert. 

In a statement signed by the National Secretary, Joseph Daramola CAN stated that the advert was “wicked and insensitive” towards Christians. 

The statement read in part, “The attention of the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria has been drawn to an ungodly, wicked, insensitive and deliberately provocative advertisement of Sterling Bank, comparing the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ to ‘Agege bread’ amidst the Easter celebration.

“In case the management of Sterling Bank is not aware, the Resurrection of Jesus witnesses to the immense power of God Himself. To believe in the Resurrection is to believe in God. If God exists, and if He created the universe and has power over it, then He has the power to raise the dead. If He does not have such power, He is not worthy of our faith and worship.” 

CAN advised Christians to be wary of the banks they patronise, insisting that Suleiman and the management of the bank showed “hostility and hatred” for the Christian faith. 

According to CAN, “The purported apology did not come from a penitent heart. How can someone in his right mind describe the risen Christ as a loaf of bread? That is insulting, ridiculous and a mockery of Jesus Christ. We advise Christians to be wary of the banks and other financial institutions they are patronising. 

“We learnt that the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria has reportedly intervened in the matter to impose some sanctions against Sterling Bank. The Christian Association of Nigeria is waiting for the decision of the organisation. 

“However, in the interim, we call for the immediate removal of the Chief Executive of Sterling Bank; Mr. Abubakar Suleiman with his management whose actions have clearly shown their hostility and hatred for the Christian faith,” the stated further read. 

Last-Minute Effort

Although the chief executive of the bank, Mr, Abubakar Suleiman finally succumbed to heated criticisms from members of the public by personally signing an unreserved apology last Monday, communications experts said, the management of Sterling Bank will need to take some practical steps to convince the banking public that it is ready to accept blame for its gaffe.

According to Suleiman, “the content of the infographic and the message it contained was insensitive and failed to consider the very sober nature of the event being commemorated, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

He stated that “While the message had no malicious intent, there is no place for content that fails to fully account for the feelings of billions of people all over the world. Our honest intent was to join our millions of customers in Nigeria and worldwide in celebrating this solemn event, but our execution fell short on this occasion.”

Analysts said whatever decisions are taken by the bank in the days ahead will determine whether or not Sterling Bank will warm itself back to the hearts of its customers.

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