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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.

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