Earlier this week, in the wake of an analysis from brand-marketing company Young and Rubicam that showed the Goldman Sachs brand was “suffering from negative public perception in the same way as the brand of Tiger Woods,” the much-maligned financial-services firm hired Washington crisis-management counselor Mark Fabiani to “create a counter-narrative” to rebuild the company’s image. Fabiani is well regarded and no doubt effective — for instance, we can barely remember what “Whitewater,” the scandal he helped Bill Clinton navigate, even was. But what if the public interest in Goldman is too big for a cautious Washington insider to handle? Why not go to the real heavy hitters — the people who made us forget that Johnny Depp ever trashed hotel rooms, who kept Hugh Grant a romantic hero even after he was caught getting with a hooker, and who recently, swiftly pulled Sandra Bullock back from the edge of Jennifer Aniston by making her look like a kinder, gentler Angelina Jolie: celebrity publicists? We asked a few for tips on how Goldman might transform itself from villain to hero.
Say You’re Sorry
“The first step in changing their image,” says Amanda Lundberg of 42West, is to walk the path taken by A- Rod, Michael Phelps, Mel Gibson, David Letterman, and so many more: apologize. “They need to show some remorse,” says Sean Cassidy of Dan Klores, which represented Sean “Puffy” Combs after the club-shooting incident. “They’ve got to admit what they’ve done, on some level,” adds Shawn Sachs, of Sunshine Sachs and Associates. “They have to come clean with the public on some level.” And do so clearly. “People see what happened in a simple way,” says Lundberg. “They made exorbitant amounts of money when hundreds of thousands of jobs were being lost, during a recession that will take us decades to recover from.” Goldman needs an equally simple way of explaining its actions during the crisis.
Show a Human Face
“Right now, Goldman is like out of the movie,” says Sachs, who marveled at the uniformity of the executives during last week’s Senate hearings. “They’ve become the face of everything bad that’s happened because they’re this bunch of guys in suits that nobody knows. They have to try and engage the public.” Blankfein is reaching out to various private-equity executives, and his conference call with wealth-management clients the other day is a good start, but as the CEO himself observed at today’s shareholder meeting, Goldman “tends not to interact that much with the general public. That’s something they need to step up,” says Sachs. “Bank of America has people on the street, ambassadors. Is there a way for there to be a consumer-touching part of Goldman?” Maybe a Lucas Van Praag hugging station or a “rub Lloyd’s head for luck” booth?
Curb Their Enthusiasm
As the company learned from the unfortunately twisted “God’s work” quip, now is not a time for jokes. Also, Blankfein might want to lose the smile, observes Sachs. “People are sitting there watching him, they’re looking at that smirk, and they think, that guy’s got my money.”
Play Up Their Strengths
“Financial institutions like Goldman contribute a good deal of money to New York State,” observes Cassidy. “Their taxes finance a lot of things in New York.” The firm might want to point that out once in a while.
Do Something Big
Sachs thinks Goldman’s charity/bonus equation is profoundly out of wack. The firm gave $500 million to small businesses and $1 billion to charity last year, but “What was the bonus pool?” he asks, “$23 billion? I just lost my job, I lost my home, I’m going to the food pantry in my neighborhood because I can’t afford groceries. That’s what I get? Do something that has teeth. Donate $10 billion to mortgage relief. Say, we’re going to take our bonuses, and give it to people who lost their homes. Do something big.” In lieu of adopting an African child, Cassidy says Goldman might consider adopting a smaller, more socially useful institution. “They should have bought St. Vincent’s,” he suggests. “It’s right in their neighborhood. And I think for the most part health care is pretty much a short bet, anyway.”