Reeling from the financial crisis, large financial institutions continue to be vilified in the media. Recent coverage in The New York Times portrays large financial institutions in danger of failing Washington's stress tests, and a belief held by investors that even the most stable institutions may still be undercapitalized and may need to seek new capital from the government. Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd slammed Northern Trust of Chicago for receiving $1.5 billion in bailout money and then laying off 450 workers and flying hundreds of clients and employees to Los Angeles for "four days of posh hotel rooms, salmon and filet mignon dinners." Media coverage savaging the financial services industry for its "excesses" and underscoring its weakness has proved disastrous for banking stocks and the sector in general.
While many large financial institutions struggle to explain and justify what the public sees as overly luxurious renovations to corporate suites, a number of smaller regional banks have touted themselves as corporate citizens doing their part to assist consumers and businesses.
A great example of this is Berkshire Bank of Pittsfield, Mass., and its new Community Investment Program to help consumers, small businesses and nonprofit groups by offering free walk-in financial counseling, and pledging to provide $500 million in personal and business loans in 2009.
Appalachian Community Bank of Ellijay, Ga., recently launched a "Together We Can Make a Difference" campaign. Each month the bank plans to focus on a specific need or organization within its community to encourage civic involvement and to let consumers know that the bank is committed to serving them.
These small institutions understand what many of the large institutions seem to have forgotten: that banks historically have been viewed as the pillars of the community, institutions that consumers and business owners could trust.
To start to correct what has clearly become an image crisis, large institutions need to follow the lead of the regional and community banks that are getting the message right.
Large financial institutions need to be viewed as stalwart corporate citizens, doing everything they conceivably can to help people and the communities in which they live find a way out of the economic crisis.