Paul Holmes 20 Oct 2011 // 6:44AM GMT
It appears to be a genuine and spontaneous grassroots movement rather than a faux-populist front group for billionaire businessmen, so needless to say the Occupy Wall Street movement is not getting the kind of fawning media coverage that the Tea Party has enjoyed over the past three years. But the bankers and other corporate leaders who are the primary objects of its scorn ignore it at their peril. If you’ve been paying attention to the political realm for the past few years, you may be smiling to yourself—or even laughing out loud—right now. After all, the financial sector has successfully avoided any kind of accountability for its actions to this point. Despite their role in the global economic crisis that is now well into its fourth year (Lehman filed for bankruptcy in September of 2008), the banks continue to be coddled by the Obama administration. Not only has there been no criminal prosecution; there has been nothing remotely resembling regulatory action that would discourage similar behavior in the future. I remember reading (and perhaps even making) predictions that business leaders would be forced to change their behavior more than a decade ago, in the wake of Enron and Worldcom and Global Crossing and host of other scandals. And change they did: they became even more brazen. For those of us who have devoted some small part of our lives to public relations, to the idea that relationships matter, this was mildly dispiriting. Here was an entire industry that had destroyed whatever trust there was between its member companies and the general public, and rather than working to restore that trust, it chose to pursue with even greater vigor a strategy of naked greed, of disregard for the impact of its behaviors on the broader society, of contempt for those who might constrain that behavior. Public relations, this choice seemed to suggest, were irrelevant. Regulators and legislators could be bought. Opinion leaders could be co-opted. The mainstream media could be hoodwinked and befuddled. Ordinary citizens whose voices were raised in protest could be ignored. All without consequence. Some of us took come comfort from the moral of the Enron story. The Enron approach to business—deceit, manipulation, the willingness to put profit ahead of principle, financial insanity posing as financial sophistication—worked extraordinarily well too, right up to the point that it blew up in the company’s face. The same approach on Wall Street might appear to be working to the industry’s advantage in the short term, but in the long term it would have serious consequences. And the longer the approach appeared to be working, the more successful it appeared to be, the more serious those consequences would be. And so we arrive at the events of the past few weeks, the explosive growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and polls showing that vast majority of Americans support the movement’s objectives and the Obama administration’s (albeit mild and modest) proposals for taxing millionaires and injecting some stimulus into the economy. It remains to be seen whether the Occupy Wall Street protests will have the kind of sustained impact that would shift the terms of the debate and compel companies to rethink their current strategies. Some of the corporate PR people I talk with are taking the anti-business backlash seriously and talking up the need for reform—but good PR people have always acknowledged the need for a more balanced approach to profits and principles and people. If business takes the protests seriously, perhaps there will be positive change in the coming months. If not, the crowds may dissipate but the anger and the sense of injustice will not—and the fire next time will be even more intense.