It’s your fault, and mine, that Wells Fargo can’t say "thank you" to its tellers by taking them to Las Vegas for twelve days of revelry and relaxation because we’re so persnickety about how the bank’s corporate leaders spend money. That’s the gist of a full-page letter published in the New York Times this morning.
No, it’s not what the letter intended to say, but in today’s climate of anger, frustration and fear, it’s easy to imagine that’s how it will be read. As I read the letter I thought it is a very risky, cheeky message, one that could as easily backfire as not. I view it from a communications angle and wonder what, exactly, it hopes to accomplish.
I don’t know Mr. Stumpf, the CEO who signed the letter, and I’m not a customer of Wells Fargo (at least so far as anyone of us can know in the topsy turvy world of corporate buyouts.) I don’t even hold a grudge against any bank or financial institution. But this is a study in corporate communications that’s worth a look. Here’s why.
In the worst case scenario it could become yet one more example of the public relations fiascoes of an era of reckless greed and tone-deaf behavior by senior executives in banking and finance. It might start something like this: Wells Fargo President John G. Stumpf signed off on an audacious letter that lays blame on the media for the misperceptions that, in turn, led Wells Fargo to cancel what he calls an employee recognition affair but what some critics called a Las Vegas junket at two of the city’s top hotels over 12 days. Mr. Stumpf’s letter says such recognition events are at the heart of the company’s culture.
The letter runs on the same day the front page of the New York Times features an article about people in Ft. Meyers, Florida losing their homes. It tells of an entire exurban neighborhood abandoned to weeds. It says crime is increasing and empty houses are being taken over by sellers of another kind of weed and turned into drug houses. It is accompanied by photos of people standing in line for free food.
All of this is the result of lax housing development regulations and freewheeling mortgage lending according to some interviewed in the article. Against this backdrop, Mr. Stumpf’s letter blames the media and by implication an oversensitive public for preventing him from honoring his mortgage broker teams that brought in 230 billion dollars of business. We readers should just hold our horses for a moment and consider how we are punishing Wells Fargo employees who are being denied the recognition they deserve, the letter says.
Because we’re so worked up about CEOs who’ve received taxpayer bailout money paying $1,300 for waste paper baskets, spending half a million on spa treatments and going on Caribbean golf outings while people are being evicted from their homes and waiting in line for a free loaf of bread, all Mr. Stumpf can do for his employees is put a feckless letter in the newspaper to say "thank you," and by the way, he wasn’t going to spend taxpayer money anyway.
Fair or not, that’s how the letter can be spun. That’s why it was a risk, in my opinion.
Mr. Stumpf, the anger, fear and sadness that I hear every day about lost pensions, lost homes and jobs is not merely palpable, it’s pervasive. Even if you have a case, you won’t be heard in this environment if you argue that you’re misunderstood because of media coverage and public misperception about this event. That horse is out of the barn. Your communications people failed you miserably. Whatever you intended, the letter sounds like whining and scapegoating.
Surely, if you want to thank your employees in a meaningful way, you can do so. No doubt you already ensure that each is paid a living wage with full health care coverage, opportunities for training to upgrade their skills and profit-sharing based on achieving economies and implementing green practices. Perhaps you could agree that you will take no more than five times the salary of the lowest paid employee of Wells Fargo, that you will pay your own club membership fees, household help and forego all the other perks that sweeten the pot for CEOs.
The public reaction is not about recognizing your everyday employees. It’s about the symbolism of a junket by bankers to Las Vegas in the midst of what some are calling a depression. It’s hardly worth defending an event such as this against public misperception and media half-truths no matter how praiseworthy your intent. That case won’t "stick" today.
Whatever you do, you should tell your communications people to conduct a communications audit, an implications wheel, focus groups, attitudinal surveys, or use any number of other research tools that start with what your customers and the wider public think of your bank and the finance industry before you make another defensive and reactionary public comment. Then work backward to develop your messages and services. And then test those messages and see if they work.
And please, don’t blame us for your questionable calls. You’re already in a deep hole, and you just paid good money for a message that digs it even deeper.
A Postscript : In her own inimitable style Maureen Dowd commented on this issue today.