Dick Fuld's speech: Don't call it a comeback

Former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld had seven years to improve his image as one of the most reviled and hated men on Wall Street but this week — at least from a public-image perspective — he proved he is the same old Dick who helped lead the 2008 financial crisis.

Lehman Brothers former Chairman and CEO Richard Fuld.
Getty Images
Lehman Brothers former Chairman and CEO Richard Fuld.

I've consulted some of the most inexperienced and unknown U.S. Senate and congressional candidates, helping them better connect with voters and improve their image with the public. In the future, I will probably use Fuld's speech as an example of what NOT to do when trying to soften your image or reintroduce your brand to the public.

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In his speech Thursday at the Marcum MicroCap Conference in New York, Fuld's facial expression revealed anger; his words projected arrogance; his messaging lacked contrition and humility. Here are a few of the major PR mistakes I saw Fuld make throughout his speech, which in the end, only reinforced what we already believed:

Dick Fuld is an angry man. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is nothing to smile about but there are many ways to appear contrite or show humility without appearing gaudy. But Fuld's speech didn't even attempt to show empathy for the 28-thousand plus employees who lost their job and retirement money nearly overnight.

His speech repeatedly referred to Lehman employees as "my people," giving the impression that he owned them. He repeated bragged about the great institute he built at Lehman, but he refused to recognize where that culture failed.

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Dick Fuld doesn't look in the mirror. If you listened closely to Fuld's speech, what you repeatedly heard was how great Lehman Brothers was under his leadership and how he developed a culture that was the premiere of Wall Street.

"The real success of the firm, Lehman Brothers, in my view was our culture," Fuld said. A few minutes later, his coronation continued as he called his company as "one of the great investment banking houses on Wall Street."

Here's some PR advice for you, Fuld: If much of America and all of Wall Street remembers you as the CEO who took a company to the grave, don't try to sell yourself as the epitome of success. When the room has an aroma of gas, don't ignore the smell. Instead, acknowledge your failures, express humility and explain what you learned from your time of reflection.

Dick Fuld yearns to be in charge. Remember when you were a kid in school? There was always a boy who was ignored, no matter how hard he tried to entertain the class. Fuld was that little boy in this speech, but unlike his prestigious past, Fuld no longer had the pulpit to berate and yell at his people. But in this speech, he did, and took full advantage of the crowd that ignored him.

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If you watched his speech, you could hear silverware clinging on plates throughout and it got under his skin. He took it personally with his biting remarks to the crowd, either joking or honestly telling them why his kids are better at paying attention. I wasn't sure if it was a poorly timed joke, or just angry sarcasm, stemming from his realization that he no longer could rule the class.

Fuld doesn't want PR help. Fuld obviously didn't get any media training or image consulting before this big reintroduction to America. He had one more chance to show America why America is great, but instead, he squandered the moment and reminded everyone who saw his speech why it's never good being Dick, especially when you're last name is Fuld and your employer was once Lehman.

Commentary by Mark Macias, who runs a global public-relations firm, Macias PR, in Manhattan. Macias PR has run media and branding campaigns for tech start-ups, financial firms, politicians, nonprofits and established companies. He's also author of the book, "Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media." Follow him on Twitter @markmacias.