How Do You Handle a PR Disaster Like Greg Smith?

By
Photo: Victor Prado/New York Magazine

Many, many people have weighed in on the story of Greg Smith, the former Goldman Sachs VP who resigned in a New York Times op-ed column and subsequently turned that column into a book about Goldman's ethical lapses. The media narrative surrounding Smith's book has already gone from breathless anticipation to heated backlash to backlash-to-the-backlash, and the book only officially came out yesterday.

Goldman Sachs corporate communications chief Jake Siewert, the man who is doing more than anyone to drive the anti-Smith narrative, hasn't said much publicly about Smith. But since March, Siewert and his PR team have been working around the clock to bat down Smith's allegations about the supposed "toxic and destructive" culture of greed at Goldman. Their goal, in hundreds of (mostly off-the-record) conversations, has been to defend the firm's honor and integrity, and — some would say — to shoot the messenger, discrediting Smith ahead of his media tour this week, with appearances on 60 Minutes and Piers Morgan Tonight.

For Siewert, a former Treasury department aide who took over from longtime Goldman spokesman Lucas Van Praag in March, dealing with the very public resignation has been the defining task of his time at the bank. Yesterday, after a long day spent monitoring Smith's various TV appearances and distributing talking points to reporters in real time, Siewert agreed to an interview about the dark art of Wall Street crisis PR, and how he and his team decided to take the knives out for Greg Smith.

Can we go on the record?
Sure, I'll try to clean it up.

How was your day today?
[Laughs.] My day was fine.

You guys have been working pretty nonstop on Greg Smith for the last few weeks, huh?
We've devoted a ton of resources to this. But everything we've done has been through the prism of what happened in March. We had no opportunity to respond, and the New York Times designed it like that.

On March 14, the day the op-ed was published, what did you do? Did you mobilize the entire media relations team at once? Call an all-hands meeting?
The charges he made were so vague, but we started looking for evidence of them. To look for what Mr. Smith was talking about was like finding a needle in a haystack. It took a lot of man power. We had to satisfy ourselves that the things he alleged weren't really happening. We had to satisfy regulators and satisfy our board of directors.

You worked as a Washington press aide for a number of years. Does any crisis-PR situation on Capitol Hill compare to what you've experienced with Smith?
I don't know if there's any direct comparison. When you submit an op-ed, for the New York Times to give that kind of attention to it as a supposed whistle-blower without fact-checking it, it's really extraordinary.

Was it the worst day of your career?
It was somewhat unique in my annals of dealing with the media.

When the op-ed came out, how did you decide what Goldman should say?
They ran [Smith's op-ed] at 3 a.m. There was no time to react. With anything, you can't react unless you have the facts. So we put out a statement saying, basically, "It's unfortunate that the experience of one person will reflect on all of our employees." We didn't dispute anything, because we didn't have the facts.

You came to Goldman to fix the bank's public image. And then, in your first week on the job, this happens. How much did Smith's op-ed derail your plans?
Not at all. This was bad timing for the firm. The firm feels as though they're beginning to put the mistakes of the financial crisis behind them. For this to come along at this time ... Look, it's hard all over. But this is not, in some ways, that unique. What was unique about it is the way the media seized and amplified it.

Is doing PR in Washington easier than on Wall Street?
In Washington, people are used to a very high degree of transparency. People don't come to Wall Street to get their names in the newspaper. So there was concern on the parts of some of [Smith's] colleagues at the firm that he would talk about them in his book. People don't want to see their name in the newspaper.

So, okay. Greg Smith writes a book, and you guys decide to go all out in attacking him — distributing parts of his performance review, for example, and trying to discredit him by claiming he was disgruntled over a bonus when he left. Why the guerrilla warfare? Why not just issue a generic statement saying, "Goldman Sachs is committed to serving its clients' needs" and leave it at that?
That hasn't worked out so well in the past. And frankly, we didn't know what was in the book.

That was some passive-aggressive tweeting the other day. (Goldman's corporate Twitter account linked to a critical story about Smith by New York Times columnist James B. Stewart and wrote, "For the @nytimes latest take on the GS VP they made famous, click here.") Did you come up with that?
That was a very good story, and we thought people might find it worth reading.

Yeah, but did you write the tweet yourself?
It was @GoldmanSachs.

How much institutional payback is warranted in situations like this? Will it be harder for Times journalists to work with Goldman in the future because you disagree with the way they handled the Greg Smith op-ed?
No, ironically. I think the New York Times is a big, complicated institution. You can always get a fair shake from someone at the Times, it's just a question of who and when and how.

So, to recap, you don't think that leaking Greg Smith's performance reports, his bonus numbers, and essentially treating him like an enemy of the firm was overkill?
Again, all the work we did was in response to what he wrote in March.

This interview has been condensed and edited.