07/31/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2013

Leadership in a Crisis: Show Don't Tell

If you wore a "Citibank" t-shirt on the NYC subways in late 2008, you may have gotten more than a few dirty looks. Perceptions of it and all banks were and remained incredibly low. (In our data, the average level of trust in the bank sector remains at 10 percent among consumers). Five years later, Citibikes have taken over NYC and The Daily Beast asked me to assess their strategy. My interview is here.

Here, Citi's leadership correctly understood public perception and frustration. Because opinions of banks are so low -- and they're so poorly differentiated -- consumer perception needed to be disrupted. Through the bike share program, Citi is projecting itself as a local brand versus an opaque multi-national bank. And being a local supporter of the community is especially important in NYC, where banks suffered such distressed images. In our data over the past month, among New Yorkers -- Citi has risen on 'Cares for Customers' +16 percent and trustworthy + 14 percent. It's too early to tell, but I would guess that other measures will move in the positive direction.

Then there is the question of measuring impressions of traditional advertising versus a sponsorship program. To calculate an actual numerical comparison is inexact. Brands like Staples and United spend millions on stadiums but their sponsorship is not a constant reminder. Here, Citibikes are likely to become as ubiquitous as the "Happy to Serve You" coffee-cup. Nothing is more New York than that.

Lastly, one of the singular biggest challenges banks face today is 'engagement.' There are a lot of studies that show how happy, productive and committed employees translate to better customer service, bottom line profits, etc. Engagement has been very challenging at most banks since the financial crisis, with numerous turn-over in chief executives and key staff. This program demonstrates Citi's commitment to NYC, but it also becomes conversation at cocktail parties. When a brand is in culture -- as Citi suddenly is again -- it offers the opportunity for reappraisal.

And that is frankly what leaders do in crisis. They don't use words, in this case more advertising. They demonstrate caring and commitment through actions. They respect the public's ongoing concern and offer a gesture to re-start a relationship. More banks need to understand this.