Reputation is an amorphous mix of what you do and what you say, and these unforced verbal errors reinforce every bad stereotype about banks and their leadership, while overshadowing anything good a bank may do to prove it can play a constructive role in the economy.
Of course, the challenge for bank leaders isn't just to avoid verbal gaffes. It's to demonstrate an understanding that, like it or not, the public expects them to have broader responsibilities than just hitting their earnings targets. A century ago, during another time of public opprobrium of banks, the industry paper American Banker wrote that "the banker must be something more to his country and his community than a loan agent and a merchant of exchange"
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Ultimately, bank leaders need to start embracing and explaining their responsibility as public custodians of the economy. If they don't reimagine the scope of their jobs, they may have a rude reimagining forced upon them by policy makers and regulators.
Though public confidence in banks has been declining for years, it isn't a permanent condition. Canadians actually like and trust their banks. A few decades ago, so did most Americans.
But this is a long game. In the wake of Barclays' involvement in the LIBOR-rigging scandal, its new CEO Anthony Jenkins said he thought it could take ten years for the bank to repair its reputation. U.S. banks and their leaders have a similarly steep road ahead.
They've got to prove — in words and deeds — that the public can trust banks again. And they've got to start doing it now.
Commentary by Ryan Clancy, head of the executive-communications practice at FTI Consulting, where he advises leaders on communications strategy and thought leadership. He previously served as a speechwriter in the Obama administration for Vice President Joe Biden and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Follow FTI on Twitter @FTI_SC.