Photo: Human Rights Campaign
There’s a clear, growing, and – at least to me – disturbing trend of major corporations hiring communications managers from the realm of politics to oversee their PR efforts.
While there are certainly experiential overlaps in areas such as messaging and reputation management strategy, tactically, that specialty tends to be worlds away from what is deemed best practices in corporate communications.
Cliché or not to say, politics is a dirty business. People who cut their professional teeth amid its muck and mire typically lack meaningful experience as creators or stewards of trusted brands.
Indeed, most cynically believe that the public can easily be duped with a dose of spin, distraction, and a sprinkling of dirt stealthily thrown at their rivals. Wal-Mart and Facebook have offered up some valuable case studies of the perils of putting politicos in charge of communications (see here). We can also add Goldman Sachs, the so-called “Vampire Squid”, to that list.
Goldman, whose arrogance and ethics have repeatedly come under fire these past few years, in recent weeks has been conducting a media charm offensive to burnish its tattered image. The effort is reportedly being orchestrated by Richard Siewert Jr., a former Clinton press secretary who also was more recently a senior adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.
Siewert also has some corporate bona fides, having worked for some years at ALCOA, but it seems safe to assume that Goldman didn’t tap him because of his knowledge of smelters.
Goldman chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein, after years of avoiding the public spotlight, has miraculously emerged as Wall Street’s seemingly most joyous CEO; his distinctly impish grin now seems permanently etched on his face, and he is again trying his hand at making jokes, despite some disastrous results with unscripted remarks in the past (Blankfein, you might recall, is the CEO of the “very important” company engaged in “God’s work”).
Blankfein’s media appearances are carefully orchestrated. He has done multiple television interviews with sycophantic and fawning anchors, including MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a show especially popular with political types.
The once press-averse Blankfein is out talking about social issues, even bragging that his public support of gay marriage has cost the firm at least one prominent client. The firm’s support for small businesses and entrepreneurs is another key talking point.
The once secretive firm is even getting into the social media game, hiring a full-time “Community Manager/Social Media Strategist” who will, among other tasks, manage the firm’s new Twitter account. Among its less-than-100 tweets so far are those touting the firm’s volunteer work at a Jersey City high school, coverage of the firm’s impact on downtown NYC neighbourhood, and its role in a global project to get mosquito nets to developing countries battling malaria. Worth noting: While Goldman has 15,000+ followers on Twitter, the firm itself is following nobody.
The media campaign has indeed garnered some press about Blankfein’s “friendly public face” and I will no doubt hear back from other PR pros arguing that “engagement” of any sort is almost invariably a good thing. Regardless, talking with reporters, smiling at television cameras, and opening up about charitable works will not magically recast Blankfein as the Richard Branson of Wall Street. Goldman’s widely held perception as the arrogant, greed-driven “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” is deeply etched across its brand. Charm offensives cannot dilute the negative power of continued stories that support that feed into that public view, such as the more recent ones about a former director being convicted of insider trading while another is accused of turning a blind eye to a major bribery scandal.
Just as a corporation can guide and nurture a brand but never wholly control it, a PR person only has so much power to “own” and protect a corporate reputation. Yes, there are legions of instances where reporters have been duped into writing gushing stories about the management prowess of some seemingly highly successful CEOs, but the misplaced coverage didn’t stop eagle- eyed investors from determining the truth about Enron, Lehman, WorldCom, and other companies with once media-heralded CEOs. More and more, the media is becoming a lagging indicator and a poor measurement of public perception. Just ask the folks at Toyota, who a few years ago endured widespread reports that its “reputation for long-term quality was finished” because of alleged problems with its brakes that some question never really existed. Toyota’s Camry is still America’s best selling car and notably the carmaker leads the industry in used car sales.
If Goldman truly believes its reputation is so badly damaged that its business is being adversely affected, the firm needs to make meaningful changes demonstrating that it truly has developed a moral compass and then communicate them to its core constituencies. It’s not just about charitable giving and taking social positions. It’s about addressing the practices and behaviours that led to the vampire squid moniker, not simply giving it a cheery shade of lipstick to make it less ugly.
One possible opportunity was the recent Facebook IPO: Goldman was one of the company’s underwriters and as such had an obligation to support the company’s stock price. But that didn’t deter the firm from lending out Facebook shares to hedge funds so they could short the stock and drive down the share price. That Goldman was willing to loan the Facebook shares was hardly a surprise as the practice is quite commonplace, but it would have been significant news had Goldman instead communicated to the Street that it had an ethical problem facilitating short sales of a stock it had just taken public.
Politicos are trained to measure things in daily news cycles, and by that metric, Goldman has moved the needle somewhat if media coverage is all that counts. But if the firm’s reputation has indeed caught up with it and is now hurting its well-cushioned bottom line, it will take far more than a few smiles and some charitable goodwill to turn things around. Blankfein is badly fooling himself if he honestly thinks otherwise.
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