Countrywide Hires Expensive Cheerleader

Psychologists, when working with patients, need to differentiate between two types of people: internalizers and externalizers. Internalizers are very responsible and tend to blame themselves for Things That Happen, whether they are their fault or not. They fit well in jobs that demand professionalism and personal responsibility. By contrast, externalizers blame everyone else for their problems. They often bounce back faster, but they are incapable of learning from their experience. They are typically good salesmen, precisely because they take nothing personally. Extreme internalizers are depressives; extreme externalizers are sociopaths.

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal reveals Countrywide to be an archetypal externalizer. Rather than consider that they might have done something to create the mess they are in, and address the problems in their business practices, they instead are circling the wagons and treating critics as hostile, malign outsiders rather than people who might be telling them uncomfortable truths.

The firm is so committed to its internal reality that it has hired Burson Marsteller to shore it up and then sell it to the outside world. This is a highly misguided set of priorities for a firm that clearly has a rapacious, diseased culture.

From the Wall Street Journal:

For Countrywide Financial Corp., this time it’s personal. At least that’s what a top executive says.

Having suffered a barrage of negative headlines while battling to shore up its finances and shrink its work force of 60,000 by as much as 20%, the nation’s largest home-mortgage lender is launching a PR blitz aimed at repairing its reputation. And it starts inside the company.

For the demoralized employees who remain, the new campaign means wristbands with the phrase “Protect Our House” and pep talks promising to keep “amply” rewarding the most successful among them amid a struggle with the sharp drop in mortgage lending as defaults soar and house prices decline.

Leading the counterattack is Andrew “Drew” Gissinger III, a former offensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers football team who serves as executive managing director, residential lending, at Countrywide.

The transcript, prepared from a phone call with 250 “opinion leaders” at Countrywide on Sept. 26, offers a peek inside one of the biggest crisis-management efforts under way in an American corporation. Along with Mr. Gissinger on the call was Jason Schechter from WPP Group’s Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations firm with a long history of crisis management.

“We wanted to assure you that my firm and I have brought companies through the worst type of publicity,” Mr. Schechter said, according to the transcript. He added that a six-person Burson team was ensconced at Countrywide’s Calabasas, Calif., headquarters, and about 25 people overall were working on the campaign.

Rick Simon, a Countrywide spokesman, said the transcript was sent to employees Friday. It says that employees are expected to sign a pledge to “demonstrate their commitment to our efforts,” and Mr. Simon says about 11,000 have signed. Each employee who signs up receives the Protect Our House wristband made of green rubber. “We believe there’s a great story about the strength of the business,” says Mr. Simon.

To counter criticism that its lending practices are to blame for a surge in foreclosures, Countrywide plans to emphasize its “mission” of helping Americans become homeowners, the transcript says. “I want employees to look down at their wristbands and remember our fundamental mission to help customers achieve the American Dream, and to help them withstand those malicious outward attacks and to motivate them to continue on our journey with unwavering conviction,” the transcript quotes Mr. Gissinger as saying.

The company also is reaffirming its pugnacious side. “We’re competitive to a fault,” he says in the transcript, adding: “Our divisions will have clear goals, built on our ruthless attack strategies to continue to grow profitably. Growing, winning and being the best is also hard wired into our DNA.”

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One comment

  1. Anonymous

    I wonder if Drew thinks he can still “Save [his] House” today-Jan 11 2008, BofA BUYOUT DAY!

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