Political leaders soften stance on Occupy Wall Street protests

Political and business leaders are moderating their responses to the growing "Occupy Wall Street" protests, which have spread far beyond Manhattan's Financial District.

Political and business leaders are moderating their responses to the growing “Occupy Wall Street” protests, which have spread far beyond Manhattan's Financial District to other cities in the US and around the globe.

“Some of them recognize this has the potential to catch fire,” says Lane Bailey, president of global public affairs at GolinHarris. “Politicians are no longer looking at this in strictly political terms, but taking more of a macro view.”

That's why political leaders from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to President Barack Obama have moved in recent weeks from distancing themselves from the movement or criticizing the protests outright to nearly commiserating with them. Bailey adds that although the Occupy Wall Street movement may feel nascent to some observers, it could become more influential than even the Tea Party, which greatly impacted the 2010 mid-term elections.

“For so many people, this is about the loss of the American Dream, the perceived growing gap between the haves and have-nots," says Bailey. “There is the potential, politically and commercially, for leaders who understand it, can articulate it, and want to get ahead of it to benefit.”

That appears to be what Obama is doing. In a speech last week at the opening of the Washington memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the president said the slain civil rights leader would have supported the unemployed worker's right to challenge Wall Street excess.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, reportedly said late last month that the protesters were “trying to destroy jobs” and that New Yorkers should “help the banks.” But he later softened that stance to say “people want to express themselves.”

Gene Grabowski, SVP and chair of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications, says the Democratic Party is, in effect, using the demonstrations to build support for its American Jobs Act legislation.

“They can seize some advantage from the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, and use it as an example to support points of view and arguments they want to make,” he says. However, he warns that while empathizing with the protestors' frustrations is one thing, “no one is likely going to outright join them” because the demonstrations have not yet coalesced into an actual movement.

“Occupy Wall Street has some very powerful ingredients — anger, demonstrations, and some credible points of view — but what it doesn't have is a critical mass of members who understand and are a part of powerful roles in government and business,” he says. “Right now, it's a phenomenon. It has some way to go before it can be called a movement.”

PRWeek contacted a number of financial sector corporate communicators, but nearly all declined to discuss the protests. However, many critics of Occupy Wall Street say that while the demonstrations are vocal, they are relatively small. They also contend that the protestors have multiple, cluttered messages, taking issue with everything from debit card fees to CEO compensation. Therefore, the banks cannot address any one concern, they say.

At least one big bank's leader is taking a more sympathetic tone. Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citigroup, said in an interview with Fortune that the position of the Occupy Wall Street protesters is “completely understandable” and that he's “happy to talk to them anytime they wanted to come by.”

Shannon Bell, MD of corporate communications at Citigroup, declined to talk specifically about the company's media strategy for responding to the protests.
Industry experts caution that companies should not dismiss the demonstrations as just a few disgruntled, unemployed Americans. Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR, notes the protesters aren't backing down from confrontations with police, suggesting they understand the importance of generating widespread press coverage. 

“This issue will continue,” says Torossian. “It's not something companies should address without careful consideration.”

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