With a simple email reply of “C’est la vie,” Lucas Van Praag stayed true to form in confirming his departure as chief spokesman for Goldman Sachs. That news was the logical conclusion to the leak earlier in the week to Bloomberg that former Geithner aide and Clinton Administration Press Secretary Jake Siewert was in talks to take over Van Praag’s role.
A shakeup in Goldman’s efforts to more effectively rebut its critics and explain its business model is not surprising. And it may be noteworthy that it occurred a full four years after the financial crisis began.
The bigger story is that only only Van Praag is leaving. The rest of Goldman’s senior leadership isn’t going anywhere for the time being. And they far more responsible for all that’s gone wrong at Goldman than Van Praag.
While many of Van Praag’s comments struck the wrong tone, he wasn’t going rogue. Far from it. His comments were carefully crafted with direct input from Goldman’s C-suite or at a minimum, strong implicit urging.
And when Van Praag delivered his greatest hits, he received pats on the back from his superiors and nods of approval from employees across the company.
Why? Because he was saying publicly what Goldman’s senior leadership continues to believe: that the firm has been unfairly attacked by people who wilfully misunderstand of the facts.
In short, Goldman’s leaders really don’t believe there is or was or is likely ever to be anything fundamentally wrong with Goldman’s behaviour. And when you begin with that assumption, even the help of message gurus like Mark McKinnon and Mark Fabianni can’t fundamentally help.
Sure, the report of ‘Business Standards Committee’ in January 2011 (everything at Goldman eventually becomes a committee), produced 39 separate recommendations for changing how the firm did business. The report, which involved the input of an obscene number of Goldman partners, was billed as a fundamental reevaluation of how the firm did business. But it didn’t really achieve that and was largely panned in the press.
The key issue for Goldman is that the brand image that worked for decades to build was a compelling combination of excellence, tireless work, conspicuous yet dubious expressions of humility and above all deep levels of opacity. During its time as a private partnership and throughout the financial boom, this brand served the firm well.
But the adaption of values more in tune with a post-crisis environment, namely transparency and a deep belief in broad stakeholder accountability, has been glacial in pace.
Was this really Lucas Van Praag’s fault? In part, maybe. But it is also the responsibility of CEO Lloyd Blankfein, COO Gary Cohn, firm chief of staff John Rogers and the board of directors. In their duty to protect the brand of the firm they lead, they have failed.
So Jake Siewert has a tough job ahead of him.
Sure, he’ll have to try to change the public’s view of a very damaged brand.
But his more difficult task will be convincing Goldman’s leaders to change their view of why the brand became so damaged in the first place. Then, he’ll have to convince them to actually do something about it.