THE BLOG
06/08/2007 04:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Resentment and Consequences in the New Gilded Age

I recently found in my mailbox the most stunning magazine I had ever seen outside of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. It is called Portfolio, and it chronicles the new Gilded Age of business in the same spirit that Vanity Fair covers celebrity culture and current affairs.

After paging through Portfolio, however, I was depressed. Not clinically, but in the sense that I was narcissistically wounded. One of my vanities is that I'm a successful guy. What Portfolio reminded me was that I don't operate in a sphere of existence that remotely resembles the characters being profiled by some of my favorite writers like Tom Wolfe. Reading about these hedge fund potentates in Portfolio brought out an impulse in me - resentment - that I always felt applied just to other people. Specifically, losers.

I thought of the scene in the movie, Diner, when two Baltimore city boys played by Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon encounter a beautiful woman in the countryside riding on a white horse. As she gallops away, Bacon mournfully says to Rourke, "Do you ever get the feeling there's something going on we don't know about?"

I don't know much about hedge funds and I'm not a numbers guy, but it occurred to me that, in a sense, I had become -- or at least could become -- one of the sort of people I largely earned my success pushing-back against.

My field is crisis management. The clients I represent are often corporations and high-profile individuals that are embroiled in public relations controversies. During my 25 years in this trade, I've found that the single hardest factor to overcome when bad news hits is resentment. Reading through Portfolio, I realized I was swimming in resentment like Scrooge McDuck backstroking through gold coins in his Money Vault.

We tend to do this when the Underdog becomes King of the Hill. When the Google guys were on their way up, grinning broadly at us from magazine covers, we read about them with admiration because they were innovators that provided a product that favorably impacted our lives. They were Little Guys, sort of like us, only with a little more creativity -- and that was cool.

But once they got "there," they bought themselves a Boeing 767, had the audacity to declare their purchase "good for the world," and we began to simmer. All of a sudden, they weren't one of "us" anymore. They were one of "them."

Concurrently, the once avaricious punks at Microsoft became the stodgy "suits" we more closely associate with IBM, while today's Google became yesterday's Microsoft. Just as Bill Gates and his brainchild were clobbered back in the '90s by anti-trust actions and federal inquiries, the Google of the '00s is defending itself against charges of copyright infringement and trying to take over too much of the published world.

The transformation from Little Guy to Fabulously Successful is fraught with dangers. Not the least of these dangers is the notoriety that comes with fabulous success in the modern era. Old-time American oligarchs, for the most part, didn't like the press. They feared the resentment and wrath of the rabble, which is why John D. Rockefeller moved from his Fifth Avenue Manhattan home to what was, in those days, "the sticks" of Pocantico in Westchester County. His mansion was not visible from the road.

Today, the whole point of having a mansion is visibility. The American Dream used to be prosperity; now it's prosperity and publicity. Whereas the old moguls used to indulge in private golf courses and their own islands, publicity is the indulgence du jour for the new moguls.

It's not enough to be outrageously successful anymore; the world must now know it. I know a tycoon who berated his publicist because Forbes magazine underestimated his wealth by a billion or so in their annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. He later submitted an audited statement to make sure Forbes got it right the next year.

Other modern moguls are similarly chronicled in the press along with lists of their possessions. We're all aware of Bill Gates' high-tech lakefront palace and Paul Allen's 400-foot ship (with its two helipads), the Octopus. Even Warren Buffett's relative austerity has managed to become ostentatious given its ad nauseum publicity.

In this tsunami of self-celebration, self-promoting moguls need to understand this: We're not happy for you. You're not one of us anymore and because of that, we believe we are more qualified to have what you have than you are. Even if we don't want your specific goodies, we'd like to have the resources you have to obtain them. And, candidly, there's a narcissistic neuron somewhere in our minds that wants the publicity, too. Forget demands for Social Security solvency, our contemporary entitlement is media exposure.

Fellow plutocrats may enjoy reading about you in Portfolio, but it's important to keep in mind that these people number, perhaps, in the hundreds. The millions of the rest of us want to be you, sue you, or prosecute you. We associate outrageous lifestyles with malfeasance, perhaps to justify our own workaday existences, and we revel in schadenfreude -- we want to enjoy your misfortune. It is a prime motivator of journalists, competitors and prosecutors alike.

A few years ago, I had a corporate CEO client who was facing a criminal indictment. When his legal team was done questioning him, it was my turn to ask questions. I asked, "Is your house visible from the road?" His lawyers thought I was insane. He said no, it wasn't.

I then explained that upon his arrest he would face the holy trinity of corporate scandal icons: 1) An aerial view of his mansion (along with his list of possessions); 2) a "perp walk" photo of him in handcuffs; and 3) all of this juxtaposed with a photo of an elderly couple that lost their life savings in his company's stock. This is exactly what happened.

Not all accused corporate defendants go to prison (i.e. Scrushy and Quattrone), but these days the trend is toward conviction (i.e. Lay, Kozlowski, Ebbers, Rigas, Martha Stewart).

As a crisis manager, I've learned that it's a lot easier to forgive our accused thieves than to forget our resentments. Our hearts are more stubborn than our brains. Lest there be any doubt about that, remember that juries almost always find a way of reading glossy magazine spreads about the subjects of the trials in which they're involved regardless of edicts from the bench against such activities. Despite the legalistic foundation in which such trials are rightly anchored, don't kid yourself: These are lynchings that are as anchored in schadenfreude as they are in justice.

There is no damage control strategy to defuse resentment. In fact, we now have a digital and old media apparatus that thrives on aggravating it. Sure, Rockefeller, Milken and Gates have polished their reputations, but it's taken staggering resources, eons of time and, especially in Milken's case, terrible suffering.

In the meantime, I'll pick up a copy of Field & Stream. I don't fish (or whatever they do), but I'd rather look at overweight middle-aged men standing hip-deep in muddy water than Masters of the Universe who seem hell-bent on making me feel like I'm missing something.