Social Media Nightmare: Citibank “Has Customers Arrested.” Video Goes Viral. Now What?

Occupy Wall Street and Citibank: social media and the open dialog with customers

Last Saturday, a group of protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement entered a Citibank branch in New York City, reportedly to close their accounts.  About 40 minutes later, 23 or 24  of them had been arrested by the New York City police.

The story quickly went viral:  “In the stupidest public relations move in history, #Citibank had customer arrested for closing their accounts” reads the tweet that is re-posted by hundreds of people.  Two days later, a video showing some of the arrests taking place has been viewed by nearly 150,000 people.

Can you spell PR nightmare?  So what do you do?

Let’s pretend you’re the SVP of Social Media for Citibank.  On Monday, you’re scheduled to speak on a panel about the “customer experience” at PivotCon, a social media conference being held in New York this week.

Do you:

a) cancel your trip so you can stay in the office and manage the crisis?

b) go to the conference but don’t comment on the story while legal sorts things out?

c) open your session by playing the video that the protesters filmed of the arrests?

If you have followed Frank Eliason’s career,  you know that he has an impressive track record of leading cultural change and getting large organizations to behave in ways that are not typically associated with large organizations, especially not with those in highly regulated industries.  Like banking.  So, even though I have been a fan of Frank’s for years–he’s spoken at two of our conferences and is on our advisory board–and even though I have great trust in his skills as a change agent, my jaw dropped when he started playing the Occupy Wall Street video showing the protesters being arrested.

Believe me: he got the audience’s attention.  The SVP of a bank in the middle of a public relations nightmare was…playing the video that created the nightmare?

It got me thinking really fast.  About how open and courageous and transparent large companies need to be in the smartphone + social media era.  The conversation is happening, whether you chose to participate in it or not.

But Frank had an ace up his sleeve.  It turns out that the smartphone that today’s protesters use to broadcast their message is a lot more nuanced than the bullhorn of yore.  Someone did take a video of what happened inside the bank during the 40 minutes or so between the time that the protesters entered and when they were arrested, and posted it to YouTube.  Frank shared a snip from that video, too, which I’m embedding below.  If you don’t feel like watching it, let’s just say that it does not show “customers attempting to close their accounts.”

Still.  It’s a courageous move for a large company to address this issue so openly and publicly.  It’s easy for those of us at smaller companies or in different industries to say “but this is exactly what they should do – be honest and open and trust their customers to make up their own minds, not run and hide.”  And you would be right about that.  But you haven’t spent years getting approval from lawyers and regulators on every line of a press release.  In fact, even Frank Eliason told me that he was “shocked” that he got the ok to play those videos in a public setting.

Playing these videos at a social media conference does not make the PR issue go away.  But by setting the tone that the organization is open and transparent, Citi is keeping the problem from getting worse and creating an opportunity to have a dialog with its customers and earn their trust.

And that’s exactly what the organization is looking to do.  Last week, before the Saturday arrests took place, Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit was asked about his views on the Occupy Wall Street protests at a Fortune Magazine event.  His response?  According to Fortune:  Pandit “called their concerns ‘completely understandable,’ adding that ‘trust has been broken between financial institutions and citizens.’ At the end, he broke through the lip service by adding: ‘I’d be happy to talk to them anytime they want.'”

It would be interesting to see that dialog take place–and to see how financial institutions use social media to engage in this dialog with their customers and with the protesters.