Corporate Communications – Doing God’s Work?

Goldman Sachs is an organisation that has always fascinated me – partly because a friend worked there for a while – but mostly because no-one really knew anything about it. It was mostly rumour and speculation, about the codes of silence, the 24-hours days, the cult(-ish) behaviours and, obviously, the massive hessian bags of money that lined every corridor in their office buildings. (OK, I made the last bit up.) And there was the mythical partner status, conferred upon only the most deserving and diligent of employees in a special ceremony that culminated in the bestowing of a personal licence to print money.

Be that as it may. What piqued my interest further was its communications operation. I met one of the team not so long ago and she was everything I would have expected, in that she would tell me that she’d done some ridiculous number of interviews (18 I think) to get the job and she most definitely wouldn’t tell me anything else about it.

The Goldman Sachs comms team works at not getting coverage – and does it very well indeed. It is, of course, run by the highest paid man in corporate communications – one Lucas van Praag (my apologies to him if I’ve spelt it wrong) ex-Brunswick and a partner at the firm. Now, I know nothing about this, but I feel fairly confident in saying that his yearly package runs into millions. Possibly, in a good year, tens of millions.

So imagine my delight when there, in the Sunday Times, but yesterday, was an interview with Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs and the head of the London concern (5,500 employees and counting), one Michael Sherwood. Have a read here.

It throws up loads of questions – not about the business of GS – but more about their comms strategy and whether, for an institution that (according to itself) never fails, it hasn’t, in some manner, dropped a bollock with this one. I’m presuming that this is a one-off – we’re not going to see a new, friendly Goldman Sachs popping up everywhere – and I guess you have to admire Mr Van Praag for getting the people to do it – accustomed, as they must be, to keeping their heads down and avoiding ostentation and example.

But I cannot help but thinking they’d have been better off drawing the blinds and turning down the music, and waiting until the mob goes away. Yes, I’ll buy what the article proposes – GS is being tarred with the same brush as the banks that really f***ed up over the credit crunch, and that’s damaging to it and, potentially, to the way it operates. One potential solution? Make it less mystical – open the doors, show people there’s nothing to be afraid of, explain that the money is reward for doing the job – the job that keeps the rest of the world turning.

Only the article didn’t. Unfortunately, Mr Blankfein didn’t come across as a very nice man – or one that in any way understands the feelings of the general population (irrespective of whether or not GS is responsible for what’s happened and those feelings). His explanation was not very convincing. Mr Sherwood talked too much about multi-million pound yachts which, apparently, he likes. Too many staffers were quoted, and in their quotations, there were the echoes of the slightly weird, slightly freakish, slightly ghoulish nature of the business. It scared me, let me tell you.

No, on balance, I think this was a piece of coverage too far. I think it would have been a piece of coverage too far even if the good times were rolling. But they’re not, and as news of a cold winter and an austere New Year gather momentum, this just seems a little undiplomatic and slightly unnecessary. Of course, it might be that GS is sticking a big middle finger up at the world and is saying, through the media, we’re bright, we work hard, we get paid a sh*tload and – oh yes – f*ck you. I hope not, but………….

(Incidentally – a small non-sequitur. Mr Sherwood of Goldman Sachs talks about buying multi-million pound yachts. Which he likes, apparently. On the other hand, his remuneration is placed at the 6 million unit-of-some-currency-or-other mark. Dollars or pounds. Not lire, obviously. Anyway – is it just me, but if you only earned 6m a year, you wouldn’t be able to afford £32m yachts, would you? No. Suffice it say, he earns a sh*tload more than the paper went away believing.)

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