Once Remote, Goldman Sachs Puts On a Friendly Public Face
After a steady stream of criticism since the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs is trying to burnish its image.
Last week, the company’s chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, gave rare back-to-back televised interviews to CNBC and Bloomberg Television, in which he emphasized the company’s focus on clients. And on Wednesday, he spoke at a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender conference called “Out on the Street,” explaining the company’s support for gay rights. In recent weeks, Goldman executives have been more talkative with reporters.
By stepping into the spotlight even a little, Goldman appears to be embarking on a subtle campaign to repair its reputation. The bank’s message is simple: Goldman caresabout its clients and its community.
It is unclear whether such moves will change public perception, in large part because Goldman does not have a new story to tell. The financial company made a another public relations push a couple of years ago, with little success. In 2010, Goldman — still reeling from Congressional hearings, a government lawsuit and a less-than-flattering portrayal as a “vampire squid” in a Rolling Stone article — rolled out a series of national advertisements aimed at improving its public standing.
But with its latest effort, Goldman is taking a different tack by reaching out even though there is no blowup.
“Any time that you’re engaging proactively is a good thing,” said Michael W. Robinson, an executive vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, a public relations firm. “The press around Goldman is never going to go down to zero, but the goal is to be less interesting and less attractive as a target.”
Goldman has long been wary of courting the public. Goldman was a private partnership until 1999. Its first public relations executive worked from his apartment in Manhattan, laboring under the principle that most press was bad press, according to a book about Goldman Sachs, “Money and Power,” by William D. Cohan.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Goldman hunkered down, as the company became the poster child for Wall Street excess. While other banking chiefs vocally defended their companies, Mr. Blankfein largely remained quiet. The company even pulled back on granting interviews for noncontentious events like quarterly earnings.
The company’s top public relations official at the time, Lucas van Praag, was alternately admired and scorned for couching withering dismissals of critics in elegant phrases. Among Mr. van Praag’s greatest hits were his dismissals of news articles as “effluent,” “frankly, pretty stupid” and “chimera produced by a febrile mind.”
Now Goldman is taking its communication cues from a new executive. In March, the company hired Richard Siewert Jr., a former Clinton press secretary who was a senior adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner until last year, to head public relations.
Mr. Siewert, known as Jake, immediately faced a trial by fire.
Just before Mr. Siewert joined Goldman, the company was rebuked by a Delaware state judge for its conduct in the sale of a client, the El Paso Corporation. The judge, Chancellor Leo E. Strine Jr., criticized the investment bank for playing both sides of the deal, given that it owned a stake in El Paso’s acquirer, Kinder Morgan.
Mr. Siewert’s first official day on the job coincided with the publication of an article on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times by Greg Smith, a former Goldman executive who denounced a “toxic and destructive” environment in which some colleagues belittled clients as “muppets.” The piece helped rekindle the continuing debate about Goldman’s practices, while stirring up strong defenses of the company within its ranks of executives and alumni.
Since then, Goldman seems to have begun a low-key charm offensive. In late April, Mr. Blankfein, appearing relaxed without a suit jacket, sat down with CNBC and Bloomberg at a company conference on emerging markets. Buoyant and smiling, he reiterated the company’s client-centric philosophy, while acknowledging that the company had some work to do.
“Obviously, it has occurred to us that we haven’t gotten everything right,” he told CNBC.
Mr. Blankfein’s higher profile has extended beyond television interviews. In February, he became the Human Rights Campaign’s first national corporate spokesman for same-sex marriage, saying publicly what he had advocated more privately for years. On Wednesday, he elaborated on his views, telling a crowd in Midtown Manhattan that Goldman’s support of gay marriagehad cost it at least one prominent client.
“They didn’t want to continue a relationship that they had with us in money management,” he told the “Out on the Street” audience, according to news reports. He declined to name the company, but added, “If you heard the name, it wouldn’t surprise you.”
Even client-focused events, independent of public relations efforts, may engender good will. Goldman is planning a new conference, the “Builders and Innovators Summit,” a salon of sorts where established entrepreneurs can meet and mentor up-and-comers. The conference, scheduled for late October in Newport Beach, Calif., arose from two years of discussions with senior management about how to better engage entrepreneurs. In many ways, it harks back to Goldman’s roots in helping nascent companies, including working years ago with Sears, Roebuck and Ford Motor on their public stock offerings.
“The more of this that they do, the more that they reduce anxiety about the firm,” Mr. Robinson said.