I'm skimming The Wall Street Journal on the morning of February 22 when a headline stops me cold: “Countrywide Treats Bankers to Ski-Resort Trip.”
Ouch. This is exactly the kind of damaging publicity that financial services companies dread. The article portrays troubled mortgage giant Countrywide — which was recently purchased by Bank of America Corp. for less than a fifth of what its market value had been a year earlier — as operating like a fat-cat company with little regard for its customers forced out of their homes due to mortgage foreclosures. While it is mentioned that the banking associates invited to the Countrywide event will spend half their days in meetings, far more ink is devoted to the monies spent on luxury accommodations, gourmet dining, and ski activities.
This kind of scrutiny comes as no surprise. It's an election year. Every presidential candidate debate includes discussions of subprime mortgage foreclosures and healthcare issues, raising public awareness — and often, outcry. It's all too easy for the consumer press to paint a one-sided and villainous picture of the financial services industry. There are only a couple of sentences, at the end of the article, about Countrywide's partnerships with a slew of nonprofit consumer-advocacy groups to help keep people from losing their homes.
What I find equally disturbing is that Countrywide and Bank of America declined to comment. Their refusal to talk to the press is misguided, as I've written before in this column. Trying to fly under the radar just seems self-incriminating. Why not attempt to open the discussion to include the other side of the story? The financial services industry has a long, strong history of community service, for instance. Countrywide alone gave more than $7 million in charitable donations last year, and that's just the tip of a very big public-service iceberg.
Why not incorporate the tenets of corporate social responsibility into your meetings? Now is the time for financial services and insurance planners to start creating — and promoting — a positive image of the industry. Figure out how to communicate the core values of your company in your conferences and events. Take this message to your corporate execs: Meetings can generate good will — and good press.
There are many examples to learn from. The 2007 Principal Charity Classic golf, sponsored by the Principal Financial Group, for instance, raised $575,000 for children's charities. At Bank of America's Spirit of Excellence travel recognition programs, attendees participate in community service programs such as a recent “build-a-bike” project in which they assembled and donated 200 bicycles to kids living in public housing.
These kinds of changes to traditional meetings and recognition programs can make a difference on many levels. Imagine if Countrywide's meeting had included a ski tournament for charity. And if the company had purchased carbon offsets equal in value to the greenhouse gases created by the meeting. Now that would have given the company spokesman something to talk about.