Somewhere inside Goldman Sachs a managing director in human resources is anxiously leafing through a stack of resumes looking for a candidate to replace PR chief Lucas van Praag, who retires at the end of March. There’s been little news since Lucas’s departure leaked a month ago and a former Treasury staffer was tipped as his likely replacement, suggesting the firm hasn’t yet inked a deal.
So before Goldman writes a big check for his signing bonus and measures his office for new carpet and curtains at 200 West Street, there is time to reflect on just what sort of PR supremo is needed at a top financial firm today.
Because Lucas’s exit marks not only the end of a chapter for Goldman, but the twilight of a style of communication that has dominated financial firms for two decades.
Lucas epitomizes the current style – a strong PR chief who manages access to the firm’s executives, nurses close relationships with editors at big-name news organs and metes out swift retribution to reporters who stray from the preferred line. Every bank follows this model, though few have been as proficient at it as van Praag. (See my earlier post for more on why Lucas is a rock star. Folks who aren’t Lucas fans should have an air-sickness bag at the ready.)
This model works pretty well when a handful of publications – and a cadre of writers and editors within them – dominate news production and distribution. By managing the media’s access to the firm’s principal assets – its information and senior executives – it is possible to manage the message and win favorable terms over how and when stories appear.
Of course this approach doesn’t always produce the desired results, and a firm still gets slammed when scandal strikes. It also breaks down when executives leak information or speak to the media without authorization, so enforcing the internal rules is essential. (Some years ago a Goldman executive found himself quoted in a weekend news feature that lingered on his lifestyle. Every trace of his existence at Goldman was gone by Monday morning.)
Despite its imperfections, this approach brought some order to an inherently disorderly process. Above all, it was an effort to manage the channels by which clients, regulators, recruits and others got their information and formed their views about the firm.
But that world has been blown apart. The march of technology has opened a multitude of channels and weakened the establishment media that Wall Street firms long relied on to carry their message.
So what does this new age require in a PR boss?
I’d suggest the new model is akin to an executive producer. It’s someone who will oversee a sizable operation that generates content and sends it directly to its audience instead of feeding it into the traditional news machine. In this way, firms will increasingly resemble media companies, producing content for a variety of channels. Goldman TV, anyone? (It’s not far-fetched. Vanguard and other fund managers have a growing self-produced broadcast presence.)
Of course, the top PR dog at Goldman will still need to be an exceptional strategist, knowledgeable about the firm’s businesses, cool under pressure and able to inspire trust – just like today. It’s the execution that will change – radically – as the firm starts to generate more of its own content and delivers it directly to its audiences rather than have it channeled through the press.
That’s a far cry from the traditional role of a PR chief at a Wall Street firm. But just as the boozy press lunch of yesteryear gave way to a more professional (and sober) approach, the era of the executive producer is about to begin.