As President Obama was gearing up last month to push further reforms for the finance sector through congress, the sector lobbyists were also gearing up for a battle of PR wits to try to prevent changes that threaten the status quo. Senior industry players like Jamie Dimon were extremely vocal in challenging the president’s push for greater regulation.
The mantra of “too big to fail” was the protection the big banks were all hoping to fall back on, and this call was certainly an underlying foundation of the bailout and TARP initiative in the US. The fear that if the biggest banks fail, the economic repercussions would be so serious that it is less costly and more economically prudent to bailout big banks so the economy didn’t get hurt further. Such sector lobbying and grandstanding is a fairly standard reaction to such government intervention, as we’ve seen time and time again.
But there is something more powerful than regulation or reform which looks like it will be a much more powerful force for creating change that even politicians will learn to fear – social media. In the recent UK elections, voter turnout was at the highest level in 13 years, largely due to the influence of social media in creating interest and driving participation in the election.
We’ve seen social media act as a force for small business and consumers in breaking the back of long held bank policies that have been unyielding even in the most regulated markets, with active ombudsmen or watchdogs. In February of this year Citibank was forced to very publicly back down from a policy-based decision on blocking the business account of a web start-up called Fabulis. In September of 2009 Ann Minch, a long and faithful BofA customer, posted a YouTube video documenting the interest rate increase on her BofA credit card from 12 to 30%. In the video Minch comments that she “could get a better rate from a loan shark”. Bank of America was unmoved by her social media efforts, at least initially. But after more than half a million views in just a few weeks, BofA was forced to reverse their interest rate increase and in doing so set a very public precedent for other customers.
This is a trend more and more questions by customers, more reversals in policy decisions that were once held as sacred and unmovable by the biggest corporations globally – basically they were too big to be challenged.
The largest corporate bankruptcies in history (see great infographic) largely occurred due to either lack of adherence to existing regulations (Lehman Bros), unbridled greed (Enron), lack of innovative thinking (GM) or just poor management. Even though Enron and Worldcom’s collapse resulted in the creation of the Sarbanes-Oxley act, it is generally believed that it is not lack of regulation that resulted in what were the biggest bankruptcies in US history at the time, but the intent of the management to circumvent existing regulations to create ‘arbitrage’ opportunities.
Goldman Sachs is being targeted for similar practices, this time around CDOs and the sub-prime crisis. Calls for Lloyd Blankfein’s resignation are sounding around Wall Street as Goldman’s shares have plummeted 19% since April 15, knocking $15 billion from Goldman’s market cap. The issue at hand is Goldman’s active strategy to make money from the collapsing sub-prime market, such as the so-called “Big Short”.
We saw the same shenanigans during the Enron debacle with empowered traders coming up with trading strategies they gave nicknames such as “Get Shorty”, “Fat Boy”, “Death Star”. This represents an institutional, wall street embraced, increased appetite for driving speculative bubbles or exploiting regulatory weaknesses to make extraordinary profits. Traders argue that arbitrage is just an ability to read risk and hedge appropriately, but when the traders have enough clout to create the bubble that generates the arbitrage opportunity, it takes on a different life – and creates lots of ethical questions.
We are coming to a point in time where such speculative, hedging and arbitrage strategies, or even outright fraud, are going to be a lot more difficult to execute because of the force of public opinion powered by social media.
We have come to an age where those organizations who are transparent, open and engaging with their customers will be rewarded. Those who don’t understand social media, refuse to participate in the conversation, and who don’t easily integrate customer needs, opinions and issues into their organization, will be punished – publicly and without mercy.
We often talk about the privacy implications of social media, but when it comes to large corporations – you most private, sacred issues will be played out on the public stage unless you are on top of social media and it’s impact on the voice of your customer.
Get ready for open, transparent customer engagement, 2.0 style!