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.


Jay said...

Sounds an awful lot like the strategy of our previous president. The long drawn out silence (more like paralysis) observed when he got word that the attacks on 9/11 were unfolding was no less than unsettling. As he sat there quietly listening to children read books, all hell was breaking loose. It was quite disturbing to say the least.

Doesn't do much for my confidence when banks, U.S. presidents, or any business for that matter, looks around like a deer in the headlights while a crisis is clearly knocking at the door.

BrandCowboy said...

That's an apt (and chilling) analogy. I agree. More than their inability to have a dialog with the marketplace, this whole thing reveals that they never really saw themselves as having one. That's especially frightening now. And history shows that it's not a long way to go from torches and pitchforks to guillotines.