By letterhead | December 3, 2009
Calling the Goldman Sachs $500 million small business initiative "philanthropy" or "lending" is like saying that frosted Pop Tarts are made with "real fruit filling."
Thankfully most media types called it for what it was: BS, BS, and more BS. But it got me thinking about my career in PR… I know two people who work at Goldman in PR. Both of whom are very smart and talented. One of whom actually has a conscience.
After my last in-house gig, I just couldn't take working in financial PR anymore and opted for a poorer but more low-key life of writing. ("Scrivnering" for those who insist on verbifying everything.) And as I was walking home from work one sunny, breezy day in San Francisco, I was cursing my decision.
A place like Goldman was the next step for me. I had even interviewed with the hedge fund arm of Citigroup in its heyday and walked away before the talking really started. (It would have been great money, even if it was a soul killer.)
On that sunny, breezy walk home I imagined that my life would have been much much easier (financially) had I just stepped up that one last rung on the ladder. The people I know at Goldman are probably making $400K a year, maybe even $500K or more. Cushy perks. Great benies. What a life.
But the PR debacle of the "loan" initiative, made me realize that I'm just not cut out for it. And all you PR students and wannabes listen up, because that initiative on its own should capsize any illusions you have about being "the conscience of the corporation" as PRSA
blowhard chairman Cherenson put it.
IMAGINE… ALL THE MEETINGS, CLOGGING UP YOUR WORLD…
I imagined sitting in a meeting with senior Goldman executives trying to explain why the $500 million boondoggle wouldn't fool anyone and was just a total waste of 1/8 of the CEO's bonus money…
"We're going to give a million dollars to charity," says one.
"Brilliant idea," says another. "But better make it $5 million. Sounds more generous."
"I have it!" shouts another. "$500 million!! It will knock their socks off. Take all the heat off us. Make us look like we care. We've got to give til it hurts to show them that we're serious. We need to make it serious money!"
Eyes are popping. Hands are shaking. Smiles are beaming all around the room. I'd probably be sitting there with my head in my hands.
"Gentlemen, let me play devil's advocate here for a minute. $500 million isn't squat. From a PR perspective, it's dangerous. It's cynical. It looks like a payoff on the cheap. Especially since after the tax benefit it will only cost us $150 million. You might as well hunker down and keep all the bonus money because that piddling amount will NOT get you the absolution you're looking for. It will just engender more resentment."
"Well, snot nose… how much should we give?"
I'd say: "All of it."
"ALL OF IT!?!?!?!"
"Yes all of it… The whole $20 billion… At the very least… half of it."
"HALF OF IT!?!?!?!! But that's OUR money!"
"Again… I say this as a devil's advocate gentlemen… not at all as a Goldman communications officer (though some might say they are the same thing)…
"Aren't you people rich enough already? Can't you forgo your bonus for ONE year??? Especially as MILLIONS of people and businesses are on the brink of financial extinction? Can't your… excuse me… OUR… exorbitant base-pay suffice for just ONE year? Just ONE year. That's all I am suggesting.
"Next year we can all go back to business as usual making (and keeping) trillions of dollars and say we've done our part. And the money will buy you, literally, DECADES of goodwill, not to mention the Secretary of the Treasury slot for all of eternity."
Imagine all the open-mouth stares.
"Gentlemen… seriously. This is a bad idea. If a wholesale change in perception is what you're looking for, it will only come from a wholesale departure from business as usual. This is not change. If anything it reinforces the perception of Goldman a bunch of greedy, manipulative shysters.
"Plus, you are ensuring that the next Secretary of the Treasury will come from… <gasp>… a community bank… or worse… <fainting>… ACADEMIA!"
AND THE AWARD GOES TO…
I wouldn't last 5 minutes at Goldman Sachs. I barely lasted the 20 years I did spend in PR, and I have very little of my tongue left… from biting on it all the time.
The Goldman initiative is pure, unadulterated bullshit. But what's most galling about it is that they really thought (or why else would they have done it), that it would buy them some goodwill. And my smart, talented friend in Goldman's PR department (the one with a conscience), probably just sat there… with a bleeding tongue. The one without a conscience probably thought it would be a good career move to champion the idea, no matter how bad it was, because the senior executives wanted it.
And you know what… in reality, championing a rotten idea because the C-Suite wants it is often the best career move in PR. Sad but true.
But it still doesn't make a rotten idea into a good one.
And so Goldman Sachs… for your corporate arrogance, your cynicism, your anachronistic faith in propaganda, and your outright shamelessness, we grant you the BS of the Month Award, for November 2009.
Use it liberally. Use it often. But just remember that it won't fool anybody, because it still…