When news broke last week that bankers at Goldman Sachs had received the H1N1 vaccine amid shortages at doctors’ offices and hospitals, it was one more public relations headache for the firm.
And there was a feverish reaction from the blogosphere and the mainstream press, including a hilarious Saturday Night Live sendup. As the bankers got their shots, everyone wanted a shot at them.
Actually, Goldman was one of over 20 companies to receive the vaccine, and the decision was made by the CDC. But, in the public view that’s irrelevant, because the brand has become synonymous with greed…you know, the long-term kind. Should it care? Though some have argued otherwise, I think it’s pretty clear to Goldman’s chiefs that it needs an image bailout, and not just on principle. The Fed has announced a crackdown on investment banking pay packages. Granted, it has loopholes, but as public outrage builds, the pressure for more regulation will grow. And, nothing’s likely to stoke public outrage like the mind-boggling $21 billion in bonuses Goldman expects to pay for 2009.
So, is there a PR cure for Goldman’s reputational ills? CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s charm offensive, though a sound strategy in principle, has been met with mixed results. A recent interview in which Blankfein said the firm “does God’s work” didn’t help. I’m told Blankfein was being tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not sure if people got his inflection. Blankfein had to have been joking, though, since, as Wall Street Journal blogger Matt Phillips suggests, “God couldn’t afford him.”
Some have opined that Goldman should make a single large donation – as much as $1 billion is rumored – to a worthy charity at year end. That would be impressive for sure, but I don’t think it’s the way to go, unless it’s part of a broader plan. I’d counsel the company to go longer-term with its philanthropy, and to put a face behind it. It should do more to re-engineer its Foundation than quietly kicking in an extra $200 million when the heat is on, as it did recently. And though its 10,000 Women initiative is exciting and creative, it’s not enough. Goldman needs to up the ante in terms of giving, and in the philanthropic goals it sets.
Remember when Bill Gates was CEO of the Evil Empire and his image was that of a monopolistic geek with tightwad tendencies? A few years and a mere $30 billion later, the picture’s very different. Say what you will about Microsoft, Gates will go down as one of the greatest philanthropists in history. It’s not a perfect analogy, and the companies and industries are too different. But, there are learnings.
Whether through the existing Goldman Sachs Foundation or the philanthropy fund launched in 2007 (hmmm…another record year), Goldman should be consistent in its giving. And it should be tied to a single, high-visibility public need, like education for at-risk youth, rather than the pet charities of its partners. It must then articulate a clear and ambitious goal, and a far-reaching agenda. Finally, it needs to place someone with real credibility at the helm. The philanthropic dimension of its brand should have a human face, in my view.
Heaven knows Goldman’s got the cash. With the right leadership, and a long-term philanthropic and communications commitment, it also has an opportunity to turn an embarrassment of riches into a dramatic move for social good. Long-term good.