Goldman Sachs’ big problem with Twitter

This post is a teaser for a report that we’re creating on digital strategy at the Interbrand 100 list of top brands. We’ve asked journalist Lydia Laurenson to head the research on this project. If you’ve ever worked on an interesting digital strategy project for a top brand — whether the project was on search, social, or content — or if you have a lead on an interesting story about those brands’ online presence, then she’d love to talk to you: lydia.laurenson@distilled.net.

I don’t know much about investment banking, but even I know that Goldman Sachs has “sparked a great deal of controversy over its alleged improper practices” (thanks Wikipedia). The 144-year-old company is not known for its openness, so there was a bit of a stir when it officially joined Twitter in 2012.

One might say GS already had a Twitter presence, though: the “Overheard in the Goldman Sachs Elevator” @GSElevator account reportedly had 261,000 followers by the time @GoldmanSachs sent their first tweet.

Today, @GSElevator has over 490,000 followers — almost ten times as many as @GoldmanSachs. It has been featured by media outlets from Gawker to CNN Money. In fact, the first Google auto-complete line after “goldman sachs” is “goldman sachs elevator”.

This could be great for Goldman Sachs, except … well, here are some @GSElevator tweets:

Goldman Sachs Tweet 2

Golden Sachs Tweet 3

Goldman Sachs Tweet4

Goldman Sachs Tweet 5

Goldman Sachs Tweet 6

Goldman Sachs Tweet 7

Goldman Sachs Tweet 7 Goldman Sachs Tweet 8

Goldman Sachs Tweet 9Goldman Sachs Tweet 10

Basically, @GSElevator is devoted to mocking the company by publicizing terrible, inane, and breathtakingly arrogant quotes overheard at the office. It used to include racist and misogynist quotes too, but the creator of @GSElevator decided to stop tweeting those in July, after he concluded that he was accidentally supporting the bigotry he abhors, and also because his agent advised him to stop. Because he has an agent. And he’s working on a book deal.

This is the ultimate example of a social media debacle for the brand … or is it? I caught up with the elusive and anonymous Mr. Elevator by email to learn more about what inspired his online presence, what he thinks about the official Goldman Sachs Twitter strategy, and Twitter strategy at large within the finance world. Mr. Elevator has apparently been in finance for 15 years (though he hasn’t been with Goldman Sachs the whole time). That would imply that he likes it, right?

Or not. “I am very cynical for a few reasons,” he wrote to me. “1) People in this industry take themselves far too seriously. 2) There really aren’t that many people on Wall Street that are truly impressive as people, thinkers, or innovators. 3) For the most part, the job is not terribly difficult, yet bankers act like they are rock stars. 4) The culture is exceptionally deviant and morally deprived.”

He’s not impressed by the official Goldman Sachs Twitter account, either. “They need to either embrace the culture of Twitter or get off completely,” he wrote. “It seems like they use it as an extension of their traditional PR drivel, as a platform to push everything from standard press releases to attempting to highlight their small business mentoring initiative. I find it painful to see.”

It can certainly be jarring to compare @GSElevator tweets to material like this:

Goldman Sachs tweet1

As it happens, many challenges for finance firms on Twitter relate to legal or purely capitalistic issues. The Securities & Exchange Commission, which is the overseeing body in this area, is only just catching up to regulating financial information flow on Twitter and Facebook. Mr. Elevator noted that “the ultimate social media experiment in the finance world is just beginning to unfold right now, with [billionaire investor] Carl Icahn just joining Twitter and promising to break specific stories via Twitter and inform the Twitterverse on moves he is making or stocks he is buying. That is material information that will have an impact on markets.”

Potential legal and financial risks have made Goldman Sachs incredibly cagey about having a public face. But of course, as digital marketers everywhere already know, there’s often more risk in not having a social media presence than there is in having one. The GS global head of brand marketing and digital strategy, Lisa Shalett, has said that GS finally reached the same conclusion after they searched YouTube and found 34,000 GS videos — none of which were under the brand’s control. Apparently that was when they finally decided that an online presence was worth risking legal foofaraw.

I asked Mr. Elevator what he’d say if Goldman Sachs came to him and requested his strategic advice. “They really should think about doing some exclusive interviews with their own staff,” he said, “like views on equities, rates, emerging markets, the economy, etc.” This type of thought leadership content has worked incredibly well for many non-financial brands. It also sidesteps moral questions.

Mr. Elevator suggested light-hearted content too, especially in the wake of a New York Magazine piece that pondered whether the GS CEO’s much-discussed beard is nuzzle-able. “How about a story by GS about GS, where they talk about the stubble beard?” asked Mr. Elevator. “They could go around and find out how many people internally have subsequently adopted that look.”

So how has GS reacted to @GSElevator, anyway? “When I first started getting attention,” said Mr. Elevator, “they tried to bully media not to write about it — New York Post and New York Times reporters both told me that GS put a lot of pressure on them to not write about @GSElevator or give it any kind of credibility. Since GS have realized that that approach doesn’t work, they have taken the ‘no comment’ stance.”

To be fair, GS is in a tricky position. For advice, I turned to Paul Gillin, author of Attack Of The Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and How To Avoid Becoming a Victim. Said Gillin: “I’m frankly surprised that the account is still active given that it depicts people at Goldman Sachs in such an unpleasant light. If I were Goldman I would make it a priority to identify the author, and then either force him or her to shut it down or expose the identity of the author. If the person works for Goldman, the company should have some leverage to force the issue. If he or she doesn’t, then Goldman is within its rights to expose the person’s identity and state that the quotes are fictitious or at best second hand. I would rationalize that action by pointing out that it’s in the best interest of customers that private discussions within the company remain private. I don’t believe a reasonable person would disagree with that course of action, although Goldman would no doubt draw criticism for taking any action at all. I think they’re justified in this case.”

As far as I can tell, no one has yet identified Mr. Elevator, and he told me that he’s quite careful to keep it that way. During our conversation I also half-jokingly speculated that @GSElevator might be useful for Goldman Sachs — perhaps the Twitter account acts as a culture filter and hiring tool for the company. After all, the financial industry has survived many such slings and arrows before, and came through with plenty of eager applicants. In fact, some applicants might be more excited about Wall Street after reading @GSElevator.

Mr. Elevator agreed: “Just as I write this, the following tweet popped up on my Mentions bar: This may sound trite but @GSElevator makes me want to become an investment banker. That’s also one of the reasons I have toned down the really offensive / racist tweets, because I realized that some people are completely misconstruing @GSElevator. My intention was a tongue-in-cheek critical social commentary on the ridiculous culture of Wall Street, and yet, some people come away from it with comments like, ‘Wow. This is why I want to be an investment banker.’”

A paranoid person might wonder whether Mr. Elevator himself has already quietly been co-opted by Goldman Sachs … or indeed, whether Mr. Elevator exists at all. But if that were true, presumably they’d have a more exciting official social media presence … unless they’re trying to throw us off the scent! I’d love to ask GS about this directly, and I’d love to learn more about what kind of positive things they’re planning as part of their digital strategy. But alas, their PR office did not respond to interview requests.

In her research, Lydia is finding all kinds of stories like the one above: success stories of amazing projects; stories of the challenges that big brands face; and everything in between. If you have an idea for an interesting story about content, social, or search at a company in the Interbrand 100, feel free to get in touch: lydia.laurenson@distilled.net. Or leave a comment. Updates on the report and its publishing date will follow so stay tuned!