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After paying back bailout funds, 'fat cat' banks' next priority is image repair

Protesters march in the lobby of One Chase Manhattan Plaza on Monday. (Photo: Getty)

They were too big to fail, and now their image problems may be too big to solve.

Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Citigroup and others slammed as “fat cat bankers” by President Barack Obama have hurriedly paid back their federal bailout funds. Next on the financial giants’ to-do list is polishing their public image, experts said.

“They started taking baby steps at the beginning, but now you see far more dramatic steps,” said Howard J. Rubenstein, a public relations expert and president of Rubenstein Associates. “They realize that if they don’t do that, the federal government, led by our president, will take the steps for them.”

Only about 19 percent of Americans view the honesty and ethics of bankers as high, according to a Gallup poll last week. Increased attention has been paid to the bigwigs’ mea culpas, their bonus structures and their charitable contributions.

“They’ve allowed themselves to be seriously demonized,” said George Merlis, founder of the Experience Media Consulting Group.

Examples of recent bank initiatives include:
* JPMorgan Chase spearheaded a community giving initiative on Facebook, donated $5 million to the hungry and gave $1 million to replant trees in Central Park after a devastating storm, among other efforts.

* Goldman Sachs’ top executives will receive their bonuses in the form of long-term stocks rather than cash. The company also will launch a $500 million initiative to help small businesses.

* Bank of America announced a 10-year, $2 billion charitable investment goal this year on top of a 10-year, $1.5 trillion community development lending and investing goal.

Philanthropy has been part of the banks’ missions since long before the recession hit, representatives for Goldman and Bank of America said Monday, with some initiatives years in the making.

Whatever the banks’ motives, some observers argue there is little Wall Street can do to change its rep. No extent of charitable giving will change the negative perception — and bankers ultimately don’t care how the rest of America views them, said Harry Moroz, a financial policy expert with the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.

“They’re looking toward a year from now, when quote ‘populist anger’ will have subsided,” Moroz said.

The fact that three banking executives “conveniently missed their flights to Washington” for a meeting Monday with Obama and participated by phone instead proves the point, Moroz said. Their rush to pay the TARP funds, too, is indicative of their eagerness to be free of government binds, he said.

“Obviously, this is an industry that just doesn’t get it,” said image expert Merlis, who agreed bankers haven’t learned their lesson. “They have the highest-paid talent working for them. They don’t need the public on their side."

emily.ngo@am-ny.com

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