NEW YORK (
Bank of America
may seems like it has few good choices as it prepares for a likely attack from WikiLeaks, but corporate damage control experts have a few ideas.
Shortly after releasing a massive trove of confidential U.S. government diplomatic documents, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told
his next target would be a major U.S. bank.
"It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume," Assange told
Shortly after than story appeared,
The New York Times
noted an interview Oct. 9 2009 interview Assange gave to
IDG News Service
in which he said "we are sitting on 5GB from Bank of America, one of the executive's hard drives."
Bank of America has not ruled out the possibility it will be targeted by
, though Anne Finucane, its global strategy and marketing officer, suggested the Bank has already withstood so many embarrassing revelations, it may have little left to hide at this point.
So far, Bank of America hasn't said much about WikiLeaks as it waits to see what the organization has up its sleeve. WikiLeaks figurehead Julian Assange is under arrest in the U.K. on rape charges brought against him in Sweden, but has said his detainment, which he argues is for political reasons, won't stop WikiLeaks from continuing to share its revelations with the public.
Getting out in front of the story may be worth considering, according to Brenda Wrigley, associate professor and chair of the Department of Public Relations at Syracuse University.
Wrigley cites the example of David Letterman, who used his talk show as a forum to talk about a blackmail attempt against him related to affairs he had with female staffers on his show.
"He's a great example of where you just deflate the whole power of the person trying to get you by saying 'Yeah, that's right. I did do that and here's what happened and here's what I'm going to do to fix it and I'm the victim now because I'm being threatened by this person and he's going to expose me and ruin my career."
Wrigley says the comic's strategy was a success. "People ended up feeling sorry for Letterman," she notes.
While Wrigley concedes she can't think of an example of a "starched and pressed company," doing something similar, she isn't convinced it would be a mistake. "People say well, it's just entertainment but we're talking about somebody who's worth a lot of money and whose brand is worth a lot of money," she says of the late night host.
In this instance, however, Bank of America does not appear to know what information Wikileaks has. If that is the case, its apparent strategy to watch and wait may make more sense, says Eric Dezenhall, head of crisis communications firm Dezenhall Resources and author of
Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong
"Unfortunately, there is the tendency in damage control situations to try to preempt something when you really don't know what the data show, so the better of your bad options is to try to see what the data show before you respond, with the understanding that nowadays whenever there is a crisis there is a 100% chance it will declared to have been mismanaged," Dezenhall says.
Bank of America does not appear to be sitting on its hands entirely.
's Charlie Gasparino reported last week that Bank of America has created a "War Room," which is preparing to deal with the WikiLeaks fallout. The bank is preparing for attacks on three fronts.
The first is potential issues with its origination of mortgage backed securities (MBS), Gasparino reported. Several banks, including
are each thought to face billions in exposure related to mortgage securities they packaged and sold. However, Bank of America is the most vulnerable to such
, according to a report by Compass Point Research & Trading, which estimates they will cost the bank some $30 billion.
Another area Gasparino says the bank is guarding against is a potential revelation about mortgages underwritten by Countrywide Mortgage, which Bank of America acquired in 2008. Like JPMorgan and
, Bank of America has proved vulnerable in recent weeks to selloffs on investor concerns over sloppy paperwork related to its mortgage underwriting and foreclosure practices.
Finally, Bank of America is preparing for further embarrassments tied to its acquisition of Merrill Lynch at the start of 2009. Revelations the bank concealed knowledge of growing losses at Merrill from shareholders have been a major distraction, eventually leading to the resignation of CEO Ken Lewis at the end of 2009, Gasparino reported.
A Bank of America spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on how it is handling the potential Wikileaks issue.
However, if Bank of America executives are referring to a "War Room," as Gasparino reports, they might do well to search for a new metaphor, according to Dezenhall.
"I just don't see a tremendous amount of value going to war with a guy who you just don't know how much he has," Dezenhall says, adding that the best strategy may simply be to stress "how they've moved on from whatever these practices are."
If documents were leaked illegally, Bank of America might decide to go after the leaker, but "the risk is that you turn a leaker into a martyr who would not otherwise become one," Dezenhall says.
While going after the leaker might serve as a deterrent against future leaks, the sheer volume of what Wikileaks appears to have in its arsenal may be daunting, according to Dezenhall.
Written by Dan Freed in New York
Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.