Goldman Sachs is just possibly the most reviled company in the United States today. It is also one of the most successful, which has caused management to be especially tone-deaf to its public relations crisis. Last week’s New York Times story about Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University, showcases the depth of anti-Goldman sentiment. Ms. Simmons is under attack on the Ivy campus for – of all things—being a director of Goldman Sachs. Not only is she a director, she was paid $323,539 last year by the company, and she had a role in deciding Lloyd Blankfein’s bonus. Naturally, this scandalous association has enraged students, one of whom was moved to assert that the president’s tenure had “brought shame on the university.”
It is time for Goldman Sachs to play offense. They need to turn the public relations tide in their favor, for the good of the company, its employees and its shareholders. They have been ill-served by their left-footed spokespeople and by their inchoate approach to criticism. Really, we all thought they were smarter than this.
All is not lost. There’s a relatively simple answer to their problem: study Wal-Mart. Several years ago, the world’s biggest retailer took a massive reputational hit. Andy Stern, who had convinced the SEIU to leave the AFL-CIO, attacked Wal-Mart, hoping to organize workers of the big box chain. His goal: to prove himself to union members jittery about their exile from labor’s mother ship. He accused the huge company of treating employees unfairly by skimping on wages and benefits. He campaigned viciously -- on college campuses, on the Internet, through union-backed organizations and in the traditional media. Before long, Americans who had happily shopped at Wal-Mart for years were questioning the retailer’s values and, worse, their prospects.
Wal-Mart’s management reeled from the unexpected attacks. Only recently the company had consistently basked in “Best Company” awards for hiring blacks, Latinos, women and the disabled. In 2003 Wal-Mart—the country’s largest private employer – was tapped “most admired” by Fortune magazine. Bentonville was entirely unprepared to play the villain.
After a couple of awkward attempts at arguing their way out of the mess the company took a different and subsequently brilliant path. They became green as asparagus. They thrust millions of energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs on the public, reduced their packaging to save waste, and recycled cooking oil to fleet fuel.
CEO Lee Scott showed up on PBS, explaining to Charlie Rose how Wal-Mart was saving the planet. It was great public relations, it was great for business, and it was very, very effective.
Gradually, Americans forgave Wal-Mart, and, hard-hit by the recession, they streamed back in droves.
Goldman is in an excellent position to tackle an issue as acute as the tattered environment – the credit crunch still crimping small businesses. In doing so, the firm can edge closer to a hostile American public.
Goldman needs to launch a large, user-friendly small-company lending program. Last November the company made a feint in this direction, putting $500 million toward a five-year campaign called “10,000 Small Businesses.” To heighten the P.R. impact, they assembled a star-studded cast of advisers, including Warren Buffett and Harvard’s Michael Porter.
Americans, who have read that Goldman earned $100 million in trading profits on each of a record 133 days last year, and over $13 billion in profits in 2009 alone, were underwhelmed.
Rather than scattering fairy dust, Goldman should immediately establish a $10 billion facility ready to buy the non-secured portion of Small Business Administration loans from community and regional banks, which would overnight expand monies available to that sector of the economy. Though the government has moved to (temporarily) guarantee 90% of SBA loans, the exposed 10% still creates issues for many small banks anxious about capital, credit risk and regulatory oversight. According to Rochdale Securities analyst Richard Bove, Goldman already has relationships with such banks, and certainly has the asset base necessary to pledge $10 billion.
The American public is well aware that some 70% of new jobs in the past decade have come from mom-and-pop outfits. These are the employers that can’t borrow today against their under-water homes, that can’t borrow on their maxed-out credit cards and that are at the same time our best prospects for growth. These are the folks that Goldman needs to reach.
Imagine the image of CEO Lloyd Blankfein delivering a check to a car wash owner in Indianapolis, or a Boston entrepreneur developing a promising new solar gizmo. He could become what the stimulus program never was—the door to progress and job creation.
Goldman Sachs is a brilliantly-run and capable company drowning in bad publicity, accused of everything from sinking AIG to helping Greece cheat on its finances. Goldman has only its own wits – and an extraordinary balance sheet – to turn their critics to admirers. If Wal-Mart can do it, so can Goldman Sachs.
Liz Peek, is a financial columnist and frequent Fox Forum contributor. She is a retired managing director of Wertheim Schroder. Read more at LizPeek.com.
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