Friday, March 20, 2009

The peasants are revolting.

The fifth chapter in “The Orange Code” begins with one of my favourite anecdotes about corporate arrogance. It happened years back, when I was working with one of Canada’s big 5 banks. As I’m setting up for a presentation, I overhear a conversation between the Chairman and Vice Chairman of this particular institution. The two oligarchs are gazing out the window of their 68th floor boardroom, and the Vice Chairman, looking at the street below, awkwardly jokes, “See all those people down there? Those are customers.” The Chairman, a charming wag with brilliant comic timing, squints imperially for a moment at the teeming street below and then says:

“But they’re so small!”

Sadly, I’ve been able to dine out on this story for years, and it came to mind again as I read this piece in Advertising Age this morning. It’s about how America’s biggest banks have chosen to deal with their current travails by remaining largely silent, and how this strategy is doing little to rebuild either confidence or forgiveness.

Gee, imagine that. A PR tactic time-tested by pros like Nero, Marie Antoinette and Jeffrey Skilling is failing to rebuild trust, or even to distract us. Quelle surprise.

Think about it. Silent spouse: Good news or bad news? Right. You’re sleeping on the couch tonight, sport. Silent teenager? Pray it was just a speeding ticket. Silent boss? Update the resume, hotshot. Or let’s say you’re on an airplane and there is suddenly quite a lot of turbulence. Would silence from the cockpit be reassuring? It would not.

If silence was ever a good PR strategy for a brand, it certainly isn’t one now. Maybe there was a time when we trusted institutions so much that we could believe no news was good news. But brands aren’t monarchies any more. They are republics. And silence in the midst of crisis is not reassuring. It’s frightening at first. And then it’s infuriating. Here, now, in 2009, even politicians know that.

The problem, gentlemen, with observing those tiny customers only from the serene altitude of an ivory tower is that you can’t always see the torches and pitchforks.