By letterhead | October 13, 2009
We are now just a week or so past the one-year anniversary of the financial bailout. And as I was sorting through some old files over the weekend, I came across an issue of O’Dwyer’s from October 1, 2008… the week of the TARP vote, which was held on Oct 3, 2008.
In that issue, there was an article titled Wall Street Meltdown Rattles PR. In it, several p.r. heavy-weights discussed the affect of the crisis on clients. They also offered thoughts on how the financial services industry would react.
The titan who was most wrong in his prognostications was Manning Selvage & Lee CEO Mark Hass, who said that, “The economic crisis… will accelerate the trend we’ve been seeing among companies to be more authentic, and that’s a good thing.”
Hmmm… ‘authentic’ you say? Looking back on the past year, can anyone say that they have seen a single industry be more consistently and disastrously tone-deaf to public outrage than financial services in 2009?
From outrageous sales junkets, to executive pay, to bonus madness, to lack of financial transparency, to their opposition to consumer protections, to exorbitant fee hikes, to their cavalier return to business as usual in the derivatives market, to spending taxpayer money lobbying Congress to thwart regulatory reform, to a dozen other thumb-in-the-eye fiascos… the industry has been Exhibit A in bad corporate behavior.
OK YOU GOT ME ON THE VALUES THING
Where Hass was actually right, though unintentionally, was in his comment that, “The financial crisis will lead many companies to re-examine their own core values and further align those values with their business practices.”
In fact, they did. They brought their values down into the gutter where their business practices have long resided.
I leave it to the esteemed reader to evaluate Hass’s claim that in times of crisis, “… great brands and companies fall back on the values that defined them and made them great.”
Perhaps these are the values that made them great…
NAIVETE? OR AN INTENTIONAL FOG OF OPTIMISM
Michael Robinson, of Levick Strategic Communications, claimed that clients effort to “fine tune their messaging” will come “once the initial political uproar over the Bush Administration’s to bail out Wall Street subsides.” He attributed the uproar to the “blame game due to the political campaign season.”
He was assuming, of course, that the uproar would subside… assuming that the industry itself would not keep sticking its big swingin’ you-know-what into the hornet’s nest of public outrage.
Dave Senay, of Fleishman Hillard, was equally upbeat. And about as counter-intuitively correct as Hass:
“Smart companies know this is a transitory period and are using it to develop or extend a competitive advantage. [FH] is spending a lot of time helping clients seize the opportunity for greater separation. This is an era that rewards initiative. Rewards fall to the bold.”
Transitory? Here we are a year later and from an image stand point things have never been worse, except maybe in 1932.
And to the “bold?” Given the industry’s antics over the past year, “ballsy” would be a more appropriate word.
THE IMPORTANCE OF P.R. TO MOST CORPORATE EXECUTIVES
We hear a lot of noise in the p.r. profession these days about “authenticity” and “transparency” and “ethics” and “values” and a whole lot of other uplifting whimsy. We hear how these things are the driving force of the profession and that p.r. pros are the anointed speakers of truth to power within the corporation.
Back around October 2008… as the financial services business was imploding, and taking the entire world economy down with it… PRSA chair-elect Cherenson was quoted in O’Dwyers saying that the p.r. pro is “the antenna, conscience, and voice of an organization.” He said that p.r. pros are “keepers of the corporate DNA” and that we have to “fight to own a part of the corporation” because we are “trust-builders whose role is to forge collaborations.”
Yeah… that’s oh so clearly the role that p.r. pros have been playing at banks, brokerages, and investment houses for much of the past year. All their assumed entreaties to authenticity, transparency and ethics have had exactly ZERO impact. (If this were a “green” competition, such a zero-impact lifestyle would win them top honors.)
And if Cherenson is, in fact, counter-intuitively correct, and p.r. pros are the keepers of the corporate DNA, then the profession’s failure to influence corporate behavior one iota speaks volumes about p.r. pros’ impotence. Stubborn, tone-deaf, rapacious self-preservation has won out, as it so often does; it’s the defining strand of corporate DNA and in most instances p.r. pros are powerless to change it.
Most of the time all our happy talk doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
It may initially make for tasty sound bites, but when mixed with corporate bile, it’s decidedly less flavorful on the repeat.