Countrywide initiates effort to counter critics

CALABASAS, CA: Countrywide Financial, the beleaguered face of the subprime mortgage meltdown, is working with Burson-Marsteller on an extensive internal and external communications effort to ferociously defend itself from its legion of critics.

CALABASAS, CA: Countrywide Financial, the beleaguered face of the subprime mortgage meltdown, is working with Burson-Marsteller on an extensive internal and external communications effort to ferociously defend itself from its legion of critics.

The campaign, dubbed "Protect Our Home," was first reported in The Wall Street Journal. It aims to motivate both upper managers and regular employees in the company to soldier on despite the "attacks" on the company by competitors and the media.

In an e-mailed statement, Countrywide told PRWeek it feels it has "a great story to tell" about its business.

"To effectively tell this story, we have assembled a very comprehensive strategy for internal and external stakeholders, including customers, employees, the media, investors, consumer groups, public-policy makers, and other third parties," the company said. "The 'Protect Our House' campaign, which recognizes that no one is in a better position to understand and tell that story than our employees, is only one element of our overall communications strategy."

The company added that it has worked with Burson for "a couple of years," and the current effort is just the latest project. Burson referred calls to Countrywide.

A transcript of a September 26 conference call between Countrywide executive MD of residential lending Andrew Gissinger, Burson account leader Jason Schechter, and 250 influential Countrywide staffers dubbed a "key leadership group," published by the Journal, is a revealing look at the confrontational strategy settled upon by the firm and the company.

In the call, Gissinger positioned Countrywide as an industry leader whose business prowess has provoked attacks from competitors, emphasizing "preparing ourselves from [sic] continued, unwarranted attacks regarding our visibility and what has ultimately come down to protecting our reputation. These attacks, as I've said before, were designed to play off the fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the marketplace."

Addressing the employees on the call, Schechter said that Burson had already been working on-site for two weeks, with a team of six from the agency and 25 across Countrywide. He also reassured them that "my firm and I have brought companies through the worst type of publicity."

Detailing the "Protect Our House" campaign, Gissinger rallied employees by telling them "Now it's personal!" and "We're not going to take it!"

The campaign's focus, he said, is that Countrywide is going "back on offense." In a "new attack strategy" planned to launch in the first week of October, the company will seek to portray itself to the media, employees, business partners, and customers as an ethical and profitable venture that is still "a great growth company."

Gissinger also said in the call that Countrywide will be launching a complementary external relations push called "Protect Your House" that will feature "extensive media outreach, as well as direct communications [from] our partners."

Countrywide staffers are being asked to sign a "Protect Our House Pledge" to support the effort. In return, they will receive a slogan-emblazoned wristband.

"I want employees to look down at their wristband and remember our fundamental mission to help our customers [to] achieve the American dream, and to help them withstand those malicious outward attacks and to motivate them to continue on our journey with unwavering conviction," Gissinger said on the call. He also encouraged employees to call with their feedback or to e-mail a designated internal e-mail address that has been set up for that purpose.

Countrywide, which saw its stock price quadruple from 2000-2005 on the strength of aggressive mortgage lending practices during the real-estate boom, has seen it once again crash to earth as Wall Street reacts to perceived instability in the subprime mortgage market.

Along with its financial troubles, it has been the target of widespread criticism for its loose lending practices. Last month, the company announced that it is cutting up to 12,000 jobs, which would be 20% of its overall work force.

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