Grading Goldman’s Charm Offensive

Look at all that soft blue! So non-threatening!

Time was, Goldman Sachs didn’t care about being hated. The world’s most powerful investment firm didn’t need to be popular in Peoria, it reasoned, since ordinary people didn’t do business with it anyway. That’s all changing now with an image-rehab campaign run by Goldman PR boss and former Geithner spokesman Jake Siewert, building on work that began under his predecessor Lucas van Praag. By actively recasting Goldman’s image — and with a little help from JPMorgan’s $2 billion trading debacle — Siewert & Co. are hoping to reverse years of decline in the firm’s public reputation caused by Fabulous Fab and Abacus, Matt Taibbi’s vampire squid, Greg Smith’s op-ed, and a litany of other public oopsies.

As Goldman dips its toes into the pool of public opinion, it will need some help along the way, like a very large, very rich baby learning to walk. We are here to help that baby. We graded the effectiveness of Goldman’s PR effort piece by piece. (Five whitewash brushes are an A, one is an F. Goldman declined to comment.)

Smiling for the camera:
Goldman put CEO Lloyd Blankfein under klieg lights this month, granting rare interviews to CNBC and Bloomberg TV. “Obviously it has occurred to us that we haven’t gotten everything right,” Blankfein said during one interview, offering a mea culpa for the firm’s tight-lipped tradition.

Blankfein acquitted himself well, but why relegate him to the Nielsen ghetto of business TV? Put him on NBC, ABC, or CBS — or better yet, give him to Jon Stewart. That we’d watch.

Cozying up to the press:
Goldman has been quietly reaching out to journalists who cover the firm in recent weeks, inviting select reporters and columnists from publications like the New York Times (where, full disclosure, I worked until earlier this month) and the Wall Street Journal for intimate meet-and-greets with Blankfein, president Gary Cohn, and other executives.

Offering face time with the C-suite is a good way to get reporters to hear you out, but it’s not clear that the sessions will result in more positive press. One reporter who was invited to 200 West Street this month described the small-group setting as “a little bizarre.”

Getting hip to social media:
Goldman, like all good corporations, is now tweeting. Its initial efforts have been predictably boring, but if the firm’s lawyers and compliance folks ease up — and if they avoid any Kenneth Cole–type miscues — we can imagine this going well. Goldman’s corporate tweeter is even down with Internet lingo, writing “ICYMI” and “Thx,” to the delight of a growing cadre of followers. (That sound you hear is Sidney Weinberg rolling.)

Letting Lloyd be Lloyd:
Goldman’s biggest PR asset — and its biggest potential liability — is Blankfein himself, a Brooklyn-born wiseacre whose Borscht Belt schtick has both endeared him to acquaintances and cost the firm dearly. (Remember the high-larious “God’s work” joke?)

Blankfein has slowly been easing back out of his shell in recent weeks. At last week’s annual meeting, when a nun from the Sisters of Charity asked jokingly if the bank would hire her, he shot back, “I don’t think we can outbid your current boss.” If he can keep the jokes light — pro tip: Go easy on the theology — his wit could work wonders.

Taking a stand in politics: 
Lloyd made waves when he came out in support of gay marriage, beating President Obama to the punch and giving the firm a rare bit of unbridled positive press. It was a menschy move, and doing PSAs on behalf of politically popular issues is important for Goldman’s recruiting, but it won’t likely affect the firm’s public image.

Ditto with the firm’s massive philanthropic efforts, including its 10,000 Women entrepreneurship program. While noble, they won’t turn Goldman into the Salvation Army overnight.

Holding a TED for business types:  
According to DealBook, Goldman is planning to host a TED-like entrepreneurship conference called the “Builders and Innovators Summit” next October in Newport Beach. We’ve been over this — conferences are the worst. (On the plus side, Goldman executives will now have an excuse to visit the Balboa Fun Zone.)

Waiting it out: 
As JPMorgan Chase and its formerly bulletproof chief Jamie Dimon have come under fire for its multi-billion-dollar trading losses, Goldman has enjoyed a few rare weeks out of the limelight. Those weeks should have taught the firm’s PR team one lesson: The American public can only blame one bank at a time. As Felix Salmon points out, Goldman’s consumer reputation (as judged by YouGov’s BrandIndex) just bested JPMorgan’s for the first time since the financial crisis.

Take it as proof that in financial PR, there’s no good fortune like the misfortune of your rivals.

Grading Goldman’s Charm Offensive