NEW YORK (
) -- If perception is reality,
has a long way to go to rebuild its status as a Wall Street titan.
The company hasn't done a very good job of getting across clear, concise messages to convince the investment community, customers, employees and, frankly, the government, that it has a strong plan going forward, several leadership and crisis management experts interviewed for this article conclude.
Citi says it's making inroads to becoming a profitable, "client-focused" bank, that it hopes to return the billions in bailout funds it received from the government once the economy recovers, and that it now has a solid management team and board in place, as CEO Vikram Pandit contended during a recent investor presentation.
The problem is, many outsiders still view the company as doubled over in trouble. And the pressure on Pandit to engineer a successful turnaround is only going to rise following this week's retirement news from C-suite counterpart
Bank of America's
"You can do a lot of right things, but if people don't understand what you're doing or know what you're doing -- for all practical purposes it is wasted," says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management. "They need to have their messages well formulated and stick to them. ... Certainly from the coverage they're getting, it doesn't look like they're taking communications advice."
"Part of the problem with the mixed message from Citigroup is they're either not speaking or there is an awful lot of leaks within organization," says Smith. "There is an awful lot of speculation in the stories of Citi in recent weeks and months. It's always suspect when it's not attributed."
During recent investor presentations, Pandit has said Citi is prioritizing more client-centric businesses, such as international consumer banking and securities and banking services for corporations, as opposed to product-driven ones, like insurance, credit cards, and asset management.
"I think of Citicorp as taking us back to our roots -- an unmatched global bank with unparalleled client relationships, but today enhanced with significant investment banking and sales and trading capabilities and depth in emerging markets banking," Pandit said two weeks ago at the Barclays Global Financial Services Conference in New York.
And to be fair, a turnaround of a company this size no easy feat. Still, if Pandit is going to be successful, then Citi needs to avoid PR bloopers and stick to its knitting. First and foremost -- the company needs to stop reversing course on strategic decisions.
For instance, Citi has received $45 billion in government bailout funds through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP; $25 billion of which has since been converted into common stock representing a 34% stake in the company, and it's recently paid lip service to its desire to pay those monies back.
Other banks like
have already repaid their TARP funds.
But one requirement for paying back the TARP funds is that Citi must be able to show that it can issue debt without the need for the government guarantee. And that's where Citi's words part ways with its actions as the company continues -- even as recently as Tuesday -- to issue debt under the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. So far in 2009, Citi has issued just $15.4 billion in non-guaranteed debt vs. $54.6 billion in guaranteed debt since the FDIC program was initiated last October.
Citi has also backtracked on its U.S. retail banking strategy.
One year ago, the company was planning to acquire the banking operations of Wachovia, another struggling bank that was slammed by shoddy residential mortgage loans falling into default. Citi needed to find cheaper, more stable funding for its expansive businesses, and was eyeing Wachovia's giant deposit base.
At the time Pandit said the combination of the two companies would create a "dominant U.S. franchise" and that the merger was "compelling." But Citi then proceeded to lose the Wachovia deal after
trumped its offer, sparking a heated legal battle of which Wells Fargo was the eventual winner. Citi was also rumored to be sniffing at other smaller bank acquisitions last fall but none came to fruition.
The latest, however, is a
Wall Street Journal
report in September that said the company is now hatching plans to cut back its domestic retail banking presence, narrowing its U.S. branch network to just six metropolitan areas.
Pandit has been able to hold onto his seat so far despite critics saying his commercial banking experience is lacking. But Citi's constant musical chairs in its executive ranks since the credit crisis unfolded isn't helping matters.
"All we ever hear about is people being shifted here, shifted there," says Rob Frankel, brand consultant and author of
The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else
We don't have any reason or explanation as to how it furthers the brand."
Last month, Citi's Chairman Dick Parsons disclosed his acceptance of a part-time position at a private equity firm. Observers say the fact that Parsons is focused on other things besides Citi, which is still in a critical phase, doesn't instill confidence.
"You get a feeling from Parsons' comment and his behavior that the worst is behind them and now it's a matter of wrapping up details. But I am not sure I am ready to buy that," says
, founder and president of leadership coaching and training firm IMPACT Consulting and Development who also writes for
Citi's "behavior is not matching its words" and therefore challenging the integrity of an already compromised firm, Thomas says.
Citi needs to sharpen its public image by being more transparent and by restoring trust, Thomas and other observers say.
"Until they're able to rebuild that trust, they're not going to get the traction they need to get themselves out of this very deep hole they find themselves in," says Michael Robinson, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications and manager of the firm's public affairs practice group.
Experts say that Citi's lack of a strong brand also doesn't do it any favors.
"The whole point of branding is creating a perception that you're the only solution to the problem," through authority, credibility and clarity, Frankel, the brand consultant and author, says.
Citi could also use a strong brand to help its bottom line, which has been slashed as a result of deleveraging, cost cuts, and writedowns, Frankel says.
Branding is also about setting expectations. "If you don't set their expectations they set them themselves
and Citi is always going to be on the defensive and take all these shots coming from all these directions," Frankel adds. "A strong brand never wavers," despite advertising changes.
Prior to the turmoil of 2008, Citi's corporate identity was wrapped up in the idea forged by former CEO and Wall Street icon Sandy Weill of a financial supermarket. With the stock still languishing in the single digits, investors appear to be anxious for a new image to emerge. All indications so far are that they may have a while to wait.
--Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.