On Blankfein, Goldman Sachs and Gay Marriage

“I’m Lloyd Blankfein … and I support marriage equality.” Those are the words used by the chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs in a new video spot produced by The Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that advocates equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.

Blankfein is not the most obvious spokesperson for such a campaign. As an article in The New York Times points out, he has been “a lightning rod for Wall Street critics” taking aim at exorbitant executive pay packages and the role Goldman Sachs and other investment banks played leading up to the financial crisis.

The video featuring Blankfein is one in a series of spots using celebrities and politicians, and Blankfein is the first CEO to appear in them. The video was posted by the Human Rights Campaign last week — only days before a federal appeals court overturned California’s ban on gay marriage, laying the groundwork for a likely Supreme Court battle over the issue.

Blankfein’s move may have surprised many simply because Wall Street is not known for being progressive. But the Times article points out that his participation in the campaign did not come out of the blue: During his tenure, the company began reimbursing workers for additional taxes on domestic partner benefits and instituted health care coverage for gender reassignment surgery. And last year, the article notes, Blankfein signed a letter sent to legislators in support of same-sex marriage.

Given that context, the video seems less like a publicity stunt and more like an authentic statement. Yet many observers are wondering what effect Blankfein’s participation in the series could have on his public-relations embattled firm. Some — like Paul A. Argenti, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth who was interviewed for the Times article — predict there will be very little impact beyond a boost to those Goldman employees who identify personally with the issue of marriage equality. For the wider public, though, it’s a simple mismatch between the spokesperson and the issue at hand. “If Mr. Blankfein was taking a radical stand on pay you could say wow, that’s big. But equality is simply not an issue you associate with Goldman.”

But others say that Blankfein’s participation in the video series could ultimately have a positive ripple effect for the firm. Through the media and other “social processes, people develop categories about what characteristics are most representative of a given group or entity,” Wharton management professor Jennifer Mueller notes. “Prior to [the financial crisis], people most certainly associated Goldman with words like ‘brilliant,’ ‘leader’ and ‘conservative.’ But post 2008, they may have also built negative associations with Goldman, including ‘self-interest,’ ‘duplicity’ and a general disregard for social welfare.”

Blankfein’s endorsement of same-sex marriage may come as a great surprise, Mueller notes, “in part because it goes against Goldman’s reputation for being conservative, but also because it goes against Goldman’s reputation for being self-interested —  especially given the potential ‘reputational cost.’ So I view this as a smart move for Goldman that may actually allow for a net reputational gain.”

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