Sunday, March 7, 2010

Banks get contrite about role in crisis

NEW YORK — In a video on a new Citibank blog, the company's chief executive sits against a white backdrop and owns up to the bank's role in the financial crisis.
"It's clear that we made some mistakes coming into this environment, and we have to acknowledge that," the CEO, Vikram Pandit, intones over fluttering piano notes. "We have to take responsibility for what we didn't do correctly."

The simple, almost austere blog, which the Citigroup Inc. unit began promoting last week in magazine and newspaper ads, as part of a strategic shift by the financial services industry.

After largely avoiding public attention in the last 18 months, some of the country's biggest banks are trying to repair their battered images and win back trust with earnest ad campaigns that tentatively confront the question of blame. Bank of America Corp., for example, has launched a Web site focused not on a credit card or checking account product but on public perception of the bank.

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Pandit of Citibank and Bank of America's CEO have been making appearances at individual bank branches. Even Goldman Sachs Group Inc., known for an aloof public stance, is acknowledging criticism — with mixed results.The recent moves reflect a recognition that a different approach is needed to contend with the public's intense anger at the industry.

"We realized that we really need some really genuine, believable pathos — look you in the eye and say, 'We acknowledge the troubles, we understand maybe we could have done things differently,' " said Tim Pannell, CEO of Financial Marketing Solutions, which creates marketing campaigns for banks.

Confidence plummets

The challenge facing the industry is formidable. In a Gallup poll last year, only 19 percent of Americans surveyed expressed confidence in the integrity of bankers, down from 41 percent in 2005 and the lowest level since Gallup began asking the question in 1976.

With such negative perceptions of financial firms, Citibank decided to promote changes the company had already made, said Lisa Caputo, a marketing executive at the company.

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