September 10, 2012

The banking industry is not very popular these days -- fortunately, Congress is around to keep bankers from being the most disliked group of people in the country. Over the past few years bankers have been blamed -- sometimes justifiably -- for everything from the recession and weak recovery to the housing slump to political and social conflicts. The industry has been on the defensive over lending and merger strategies, compensation, staffing decisions and security policies. The financial services industry continues to try to rebuild trust and credibility, not only by investing in technologies that can improve the customer experience and empower clients, but also through philanthropy and support of local communities. However, as worthwhile and productive as these kinds of efforts can be, it can't be denied that as an industry we have a seriously tarnished image. Even if some of the criticism is overstated or unjustified, as we all know, perception becomes reality. It will take a long time to for the public -- including consumers, politicians, regulators and the media – to overcome its collective unhappiness with bankers, their policies, and their institutions performance.

So strong is this distaste that it's hard to recall that a short 11 years ago the public sentiment about the financial services industry was much different. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks not only murdered nearly 3,000 innocent people and destroyed two gigantic office towers -- they also were assaults on the financial services industry. Along with the shock and sadness that marked Americans' reactions to the attacks, there were very real fears about the ability of banks and other financial institutions that had lost employees or facilities (or, in most cases, both) to survive. And, when these organizations managed to overcome these blows and resume operations, there was very real pride and relief. Supporting the financial services industry was a matter of patriotism in the months after 9/11.

It's shocking to me that twice in my lifetime -- following the 9/11 attacks, and at the height of the financial crisis -- the very survival of the banking industry was in question. But how different the reactions were in the wake of the second devastating occurrence. Perhaps part of the difference is due to the fact that, in many ways, the industry brought the financial crisis on itself. Another probably stems from the attitudes, words and actions of the industry's top executives -- often self-serving, defensive, and clueless – in the years since the crisis, compared with the solemnity, determination and empathy that marked company leadership after the 9/11 attacks. And some, no doubt, comes from politicians', the media's and the public's tendency to play the blame game and look for easily identifiable villains.

Still, on this 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it's worth remembering that it doesn't have to be that way. And it shouldn't have to take a national tragedy for people to believe in the financial services industry.

[What kind of technology and operational changes were spurred by the September 11 terrorist attacks? Read How Has the Banking Industry Changed in a Decade?]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & ...