Don’t you hate a tease? The New York Times set the tone for this week’s Libor coverage with its weekend story that the Justice Department (and other regulators) is thinking about filing criminal charges against banks and individuals involved in Liborgate. “It’s hard to imagine a bigger case than Libor,” said one of the unnamed government officials. Golly! What’s next?
The news presumably sent a chill through banks and their senior management. We all know what happens when a firm faces criminal indictments: If true, things could get very ugly, and it’s normally over in a matter of hours. Just talk to Enron’s former auditors Arthur Andersen.
The Times article reported that the DoJ is building its case, though they hedged by saying this could take time. But since publication two days ago, the Libor waters have been further muddied. Did the Bank of England knowingly overlook rate fixing? And what did the US Federal Reserve know? Talking about a criminal prosecution, even unofficially to The New York Times, might have been a little premature. The facts are not so simple and there is enough blame to go around, including even possibly some regulators. In the end, the Justice Department may not be able to prosecute. That’s one story that won’t help the weakened PR image of law enforcement.
The PR Verdict: “D” (It’s a Dud) for the Department of Justice. This might do more PR damage than good, if not followed through.
The PR Takeaway: Crying wolf messes with your PR. With a public increasingly incredulous that no big name is behind bars following the financial crisis, there is certainly PR mileage in saying”This time around, someone is going to stand trial.” But unless it’s a certainty, this is one headline that should have been delayed until a criminal prosecution was given the all clear. A disgruntled public, suspicious of the cozy relationship between regulators and Wall Street, might find yet again that hefty fines and civil charges are they only penatlies ultimately on offer. Failing to press charges won’t help the PR image of independent enforcement and regulation. Next time, why not pause before making the splashy unofficial announcement?
Is the Department of Justice being a big Libor-tease? Give us your PR Verdict!