PR Is Where You Find It!

In the last couple of days a cover letter from a student seeking an internship with a Wall Street firm has caught the eye of the media as well as other companies, notably Smith & Wollensky, which expressed interest in hiring the note’s author via a full-page ad in The New York Times.

What makes the note special is the particularly self-deprecating and refreshingly honest appraisal of the applicant’s lack of “unbelievably special skills or genius eccentricities.”

I, for one, am on pins and needles to see where this sought-after prospect finally ends up – slicing steak or crunching numbers?

What makes the story special to PR pros, though, is the brilliant way Smith & Wollensky leveraged the intern’s mention of the landmark New York City restaurant. In the note, the author begins by reminding his would-be employer that they “met the summer before last at Smith & Wollensky’s.”

I imagine that this mere mention in the note stirred creative brilliance in a PR person connected to Smith & Wollensky and an entire campaign was born predicated on the restaurant’s eagerness to hire smart and interesting employees. The ad appeared followed by an avalanche of good PR in places like Forbes and MSN.

There’s a great lesson here for all practitioners – PR is where you find it; more precisely, it’s where you look for it, and we should always be looking for it!

As you consume content in its various online and traditional forms, be on the lookout for ways to weave your client’s story into something entering the zeitgeist. Not a force-fit, but something that organically makes sense for your client to become an interesting spin to an existing story, or to take off in an entirely new direction.

You may not have this Smith & Wollensky-type story fall in your lap, but if you’re looking for it, you should be able to find opportunities that work for clients.
Any great examples? Let us know here.

Wall Street’s Apology – So Far, Just PR?

Two former banking executives got another workout last week. So did the “apology PR” movement. This time it was Citibank ex-CEO Charles Prince and former director Robert Rubin. Under the hot glare of cameras – and the even more heated glares from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, each expressed the most sincere-sounding contrition to date on the financial mess.

But, the Wall Street chieftains still have a lot to learn about apology communications. Morgan Stanley’s John Mack offered up a statement of regret in February. Others have released carefully worded apologies, or non-apologies, since most are short on specifics. (An exception is that of former Bear Sterns chief executive James Cayne, who expressed regret and personal responsibility after his firm folded. Losing $900 million of your own cash will do that.)

The bankers might do well to look at JetBlue’s 2007 response to the Valentine’s Day PR storm that nearly grounded the company. Founder and former CEO David Neeleman’s mea culpa might be the perfect corporate apology. It didn’t happen a year later under legal or regulatory duress. It was offered in many forms, from a major media apology tour, to a YouTube video. Most importantly, it was timely, heartfelt, and part of a larger plan to prevent future incidents.

By contrast, the Wall Street apologies are more like the muttered regret of a misbehaving child being dragged through the motions by reproving parents. What I find most amusing is the groupspeak. For an industry known for the healthy egos at the top, there’s an awful lot of royal “we’s” being used. As the Goldman Sachs fraud investigation ripples through world markets, we can expect even more, um, sharing of responsibility, and maybe more creative mea culpas.

Yet, an authentic apology shouldn’t point the finger at subordinates, ratings agencies, interest rates, homeowners, regulators, or anyone else. One of the first rules of crisis PR is to take responsibility. The executive who stops the buck will, paradoxically, see his personal stock go up, liability notwithstanding.

But the most glaring omission here is the eye to the future. That’s what Wall Street really owes Main Street. Not just heartfelt statements of regret. Or admissions of responsibility by top management. Or generous philanthropy. Those amount to nothing if the banking industry continues to oppose basic financial reform measures like, say, those covering derivatives. The buck – and the spin – stops there.

How Goldman Can Beat Its Bad PR

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.