NEW YORK -- As May Day protests hit major cities across the United States this week, breathing new life into an Occupy Wall Street movement still in its infancy, some financial institutions reacted rather oddly.
"These are challenging economic times and we understand that customers are demanding a lot from financial institutions," Wells Fargo spokeswoman Holly Rockwood told The Huffington Post after Tuesday's demonstrations in San Francisco, where the company is based.
Her bank's attitude toward all the anger being directed at the company "is one of understanding," she said. "We believe collaboration not confrontation is the way that we can work together."
Wells Fargo is not alone in its attempts to put forward a kinder, gentler face. After dealing with anti-bank anger in the wake of the financial crisis and the explosive Occupy movement, financial institutions are starting to wake up and actually deal with public hostility. Call it compassionate capitalism.
"The financial services industry has become sensitized to the fact that they have an exceptionally low level of public support," said Jeffrey Taufield, a managing director of financial and corporate communications firm Kekst and Co., who works closely with a number of large financial institutions. Some are realizing that they need to "go on a communications offensive," he said.
The real test, of course, is whether, with the change in the banks' public posture, the message is trickling down to financiers in the trenches. In private conversations with The Huffington Post, several bankers seemed to make clear that it had not.
"The protestors are wasting their time," said one JPMorgan Chase employee, who did not wish to be named, citing company policy. "They're attacking the wrong people. They should focus on making a true difference and volunteer at soup kitchens or women's centers where feeding one person actually changes a life rather than live like hippies trying to mark the nation on a topic that's bigger than any of us."
In January, Edelman's 2012 Trust Barometer survey revealed that just 45 percent of people polled in 25 countries said they trusted the financial services industry; in United States, the number was just 41 percent. Ninety-six percent of public relations executives at financial institutions polled by communications firm Makovsky + Co. in February and March said their firms invite negative public perception through their actions or inactions.
Cue Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman's oft-vilified CEO, who has been sounding Wall Street's chastened message in a variety of public appearances lately. Last month, Blankfein took to cable television admitting that his firm had not done a very good job explaining itself to the nonbanking world.
"It occurred to us that we haven't gotten everything right with regard to how we've dealt with the public," Blankfein told CNBC. "We have no real consumer business, so we haven't really had those muscles."
On Bloomberg television that same day, Blankfein went further. "It turns out, another name for consumers are citizens and taxpayers ... They always should have been important, but it wasn't part of our audience as we thought about it. Now we will have to develop those muscles a little better than we have. Shame on us."
One impetus for Blankfein's campaign of contrition was a widely read March New York Times op-ed by former Goldman banker Greg Smith skewering the firm for its "toxic" culture.
For any of the Goldmanologists following the CEO's words closely, the comments seemed to indicate a public relations revamp. They were a radical departure from Blankfein's now famous remarks at the onset of the financial crisis when he told a reporter for The Times of London that his ilk was doing "God's work," just as workers around the globe were being laid off as a result of a financial crisis (largely created by his ilk).
"It’s not fun being called a 'vampire squid,'" says Daniel Alpert, founding managing partner at investment bank Westwood Capital, referring to the image Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi used to describe Goldman in a scathing 2010 piece. "It changes how [bankers] present themselves to the public. They're being far less hubristic than they were and that's a good thing."
Now, four years after the eruption of the financial crisis, the industry has "come to realize that they're going to get in the back of this cop car sitting up or lying down," said Eric Dezenhall, co-founder of communications and crisis management firm Dezenhall Resources, which has a number of global financial institutions as clients.
"They have no choice but to figure out what their public posture is going to be." Before banks were forced to make nice, "it was never in their self-interest to have a high-public profile because they recognized -- smartly -- that they were fundamentally unlovable," Dezenhall said.
"At first, Wall Street firms didn't take the protests seriously," Taufield said. "Increasingly, they understand that this is part of a social movement by many Americans; it’s part of a much bigger attitude shift and I think my clients get that. Wall street firms were pilloried. The financial services industry has become sensitized to the fact that they have an exceptionally low level of public support."
"They need to repair the reputational damage that's been done," Taufield added.
On Tuesday evening, just about the time May Day protesters numbering in the thousands descended on New York's financial district (carrying signs "Too Big to Fail or Too Big to Jail?" and "Tax Financial Transactions”), a few bankers and brokers could be found at a wood-paneled pub called Pound & Pence, just steps away from Zuccotti Park -- but safely on the other side of the police barricades cordoning off lower Broadway.
Asked about the protest, a man who called himself L.V. said he worked at a brokerage firm nearby. "Last time they were down here, it cost me $3,800," he said. "I lost a commission." Police lines had blocked him from entering his apartment to close a deal.
L.V. wasn't opposed to individuals' voicing concerns about the economy, "but it's coming from the wrong group of people," he said. "They're virtually homeless and griping all the time; they're groups who don't pay taxes, don't contribute. We're basically subsidizing them!"
Another, younger financier voiced a similar gripe. He’s sympathetic but "they're going about it the wrong way," the man in the dark suit said, declining to give his name or position but stating that he works at a large financial institution nearby. “They're costing the city a lot of money. A lot of the people who work in finance aren’t responsible for anything these people are talking about and come from humble roots.”
So with Occupy still a force, is the anger sinking in? Beyond the public posturing, that is? "There is a large swath of the financial services industry that really does believe they are doing good and are hurt that the world doesn’t understand it," Dezenhall said. "And there are other [clients] who call me and just want the protesters off their backs."
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