Goldman Sachs’ Big Problem With Twitter

An interview with the elusive and anonymous man behind the @GSElevator Twitter account, which mocks Goldman Sachs by publishing terrible, inane, and breathtakingly arrogant quotes overheard at the office.

Topics: Social Media

November 2013

I don’t know much about investment banking, but even I know that Goldman Sachs has a controversial history full of alleged misdeeds. The 144-year-old company is not famous for its openness, so there was a bit of a stir when it officially joined Twitter in 2012. One might say GS already had a Twitter presence, though: the “Overheard in the Goldman Sachs Elevator” @GSElevator account reportedly had 261,000 followers by the time @GoldmanSachs sent their first tweet.

Today, @GSElevator has over 520,000 followers — over seven times as many as @GoldmanSachs. It has been featured by media outlets from Gawker to CNN Money. In fact, the first Google auto-complete line after “goldman sachs” is “goldman sachs elevator.” This might be great for Goldman Sachs, but it’s hard to say because… well, here are some @GSElevator tweets:

Basically, @GSElevator is an anti-Goldman Sachs mini-blog. The person behind @GSElevator doesn’t use Twitter for conversation; the account is entirely devoted to mocking the company by publishing terrible, inane, and breathtakingly arrogant quotes overheard at the office. It used to include racist and misogynist quotes too, but the creator of @GSElevator decided to stop tweeting those in July, after he concluded that he was accidentally supporting the bigotry he abhors, and also because his agent advised him to stop. Because he has an agent. And he’s working on a book deal.

This could be seen as the ultimate example of a media debacle for the brand… but is it? I caught up with the elusive (and anonymous) Mr. Elevator by email to learn more about what inspired his online presence, what he thinks about the official Goldman Sachs Twitter strategy, and Twitter strategy at large within the finance world. Mr. Elevator has apparently been in finance for 15 years, though he hasn’t been with Goldman Sachs the whole time. That would imply that he likes it, right?

Or not. “I am very cynical for a few reasons,” he wrote to me. “1) People in this industry take themselves far too seriously. 2) There really aren’t that many people on Wall Street that are truly impressive as people, thinkers, or innovators. 3) For the most part, the job is not terribly difficult, yet bankers act like they are rock stars. 4) The culture is exceptionally deviant and morally deprived.”

He’s not impressed by the official Twitter account, either. “They need to either embrace the culture of Twitter or get off completely,” he wrote. “It seems like they use it as an extension of their traditional PR drivel, as a platform to push everything from standard press releases to attempting to highlight their small business mentoring initiative. I find it painful to see.”

It can certainly be jarring to compare @GSElevator tweets to material like this:

As it happens, many challenges for finance firms on Twitter are legal or purely capitalistic ones. The Securities & Exchange Commission, which is the relevant overseeing body, is only just catching up to regulating financial information flow on Twitter and Facebook; a press release in April covered the acceptable usage of these platforms for making announcements to investors.

Mr. Elevator added that “the ultimate social media experiment in the finance world is just beginning to unfold right now, with [billionaire investor] Carl Icahn just joining Twitter and promising to break specific stories via Twitter and inform the Twitterverse on moves he is making or stocks he is buying. That is material information that will have an impact on markets.”

Potential legal and financial risks have made Goldman Sachs incredibly cagey about having a public face. But of course, as digital marketers everywhere already know, there’s often more risk in not having a social media presence than there is in having one. The GS global head of brand marketing and digital strategy, Lisa Shalett, said in an appearance at What’s Next DC that GS finally reached the same conclusion after they searched YouTube and found 34,000 GS videos — none of which were under the brand’s control. That, apparently, was when they finally decided that an online presence was worth risking legal foofaraw.

I asked Mr. Elevator what he’d say if Goldman Sachs came to him and requested his strategic advice. “They really should think about doing some exclusive interviews with their own staff,” he said, “like views on equities, rates, emerging markets, the economy, etc.” That’s the same type of thought leadership content that worked incredibly well for SAP and their Forbes writers. It also sidesteps both regulatory concerns, and the moral questions that @GSElevator highlights.

Mr. Elevator suggested light-hearted content, too, especially in the wake of a New York Magazine piece that pondered whether the GS CEO’s much-discussed beard is “nuzzle-able.” “How about a story by GS about GS, where they talk about the stubble beard?” asked Mr. Elevator. “They could go around and find out how many people internally have subsequently adopted that look.”

So how has GS reacted to @GSElevator, anyway? “When I first started getting attention,” said Mr. Elevator, “they tried to bully media not to write about it — New York Post and New York Times reporters both told me that GS put a lot of pressure on them to not write about @GSElevator or give it any kind of credibility. Once GS realized that that approach wouldn’t work, they have taken the ‘no comment’ stance.”

To be fair, GS is in a tricky position. For advice, I turned to Paul Gillin, author of Attack Of The Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and How To Avoid Becoming a Victim. Said Gillin: “I’m frankly surprised that the account is still active given that it depicts people at Goldman Sachs in such an unpleasant light. If I were Goldman I would make it a priority to identify the author, and then either force him or her to shut it down or expose the identity of the author. If the person works for Goldman, the company should have some leverage to force the issue. If he or she doesn’t, then Goldman is within its rights to expose the person’s identity and state that the quotes are fictitious or at best secondhand. I would rationalize that action by pointing out that it’s in the best interest of customers that private discussions within the company remain private. I don’t believe a reasonable person would disagree with that course of action, although Goldman would no doubt draw criticism for taking any action at all. I think they’re justified in this case.”

As far as I can tell, no one has yet identified Mr. Elevator, and he told me that he’s quite careful to keep it that way. During our conversation I also half-jokingly speculated that @GSElevator might be useful for Goldman Sachs — perhaps the Twitter account is functionally a culture filter and hiring tool for the company. After all, the financial industry has survived many such slings and arrows before, and came through with plenty of eager applicants. In fact, some applicants might be more excited about Wall Street after reading @GSElevator.

Mr. Elevator agreed: “Just as I write this, the following tweet popped up on my Mentions bar: ‘This may sound trite but @GSElevator makes me want to become an investment banker.’ That’s also one of the reasons I have toned down the really offensive / racist tweets, because I realized that some people are completely misconstruing @GSElevator. My intention was a tongue-in-cheek critical social commentary on the ridiculous culture of Wall Street, and yet, some people come away from it with comments like, ‘Wow. This is why I want to be an investment banker.'”

It is undeniable that @GSElevator is extremely interesting and unique, which is the definition of great content. I certainly think about Goldman Sachs a lot more than I used to, and I talk about it with my friends more, too. Some of us actually text each other out of excitement when we see updates, which is the mark of a great campaign. And while the Twitter account highlights GS bankers’ snide privilege, it simultaneously highlights their wealth.

A cynical person might wonder whether Mr. Elevator himself has already quietly been co-opted by Goldman Sachs… or indeed, whether Mr. Elevator exists at all. But if that were true, presumably they’d have a more exciting official social media presence… unless they’re trying to throw us off the scent! I’d love to ask GS about this directly, and I’d love to learn more about what kind of positive things they’re planning as part of their digital strategy. Alas, their PR office did not respond to interview requests.

This is an excerpt from Brandopolis: A Big Brand Strategy Report, which I worked on over the summer.

I got my start in digital media at age 15, when I was invited to intern at a game design company. I went on to write games for White Wolf Game Studio; from there, I branched out into blogs, articles, a few books, and general social media mayhem. I have spoken at universities across America and at South By Southwest Interactive. I have also traveled extensively, including Peace Corps service in Swaziland, Africa.

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