Bernanke’s Message to America: “I Get It.”

Posted 03.23.2009

Bernacke1 Over the weekend, I caught up on some news I missed while I was taking spring break with my family.  I’d heard a lot about Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s interview on 60 Minutes so I decided to check it out online.  Honestly, I thought I’d give it a couple of minutes and move on.  Twenty eight minutes later,  I found myself still watching it.  In terms of both content and style, it was a great example of effective leadership communications.

Here are some of my takeaways from the interview that apply to leaders who have to demonstrate that they “get it” in the midst of tough times:

In his interview with CBS’ Scott Pelley, Bernanke talked about the range of steps the Fed has taken to address the current economic crisis and his role in leading those efforts.  I encourage you to take a look at the interview and see what you notice about his communications approach.  Here are five characteristics I noticed that leaders should strive to demonstrate (all quotations are drawn from the CBS transcript of the interview):

Pelley began the conversation by asking for a status report on the economy. Bernanke made some points and then was very direct in the following exchange:

"But you wouldn't say at this point that we're out of the woods?" Pelley asked.

"No," Bernanke replied. "I think the key issue is the banking system and the financial system."

When asked about the hot topic of the week, bonuses to executives of AIG, the Chairman didn’t mince words:

"It makes me angry. I slammed the phone more than a few times on discussing AIG. I understand why the American people are angry. It's absolutely unfair that taxpayer dollars are going to prop up a company that made these terrible bets…”

An interview with a sitting Federal Reserve Chairman is unprecedented. Pelley pointed that out in this segment which prompted a transparent response from Bernanke:

"When I called and proposed this interview about a year ago, your representative laughed out loud. And said, 'The Fed chairman never does an interview.' Why are you doing this?" Pelley asked.

"Well, it's an extraordinary time. It's an extraordinary time. This is a chance for me, I think, to talk to America directly," Bernanke said.

I think one of the factors behind the anger that people are feeling about this crisis is that the people in charge are insiders who don’t understand what’s happening with average folks.  Bernanke made it a point to demonstrate that he’s from the small town of Dillon, South Carolina and grew  up as an average kid.  Sitting on a sidewalk bench, Pelley noted,

"We're sitting on this corner where your family's store was. And I see it’s Main Street. People feel like guys like you are tuned into what happens on Wall Street and you forget places like this."

"I come from Main Street. That's my background," Bernanke said. "I've never been on Wall Street. And I care about Wall Street for one reason and one reason only because what happens on Wall Street matters to Main Street."

Reality and Hope
Pelley concluded the interview with a closing question which positioned Bernanke to do what  leaders have to do which is to define reality and then offer hope:

"If you had a message for the American People in this interview, what would it be?" Pelley asked.

"Scott, I'd say three things. I'd say, first of all, that the Federal Reserve is here, and is gonna do everything possible to support this recovery. The second thing I would say is that we have to understand, though, that recovery is not gonna happen until the financial markets and the banks are stabilized. And we do have a plan, we have a program for that. But it's gonna take some patience," Bernanke said.

"But the third and final thing I'd just like to say to the American People is that I have every confidence that this economy will recover, and recover in a strong and sustained way. The American people are among the most productive in the world. We have the best technologies. We have great universities. We have entrepreneurs. I just have every confidence that as we get through this crisis, that our economy will begin to grow again, and it will remain the most powerful and dynamic economy in the world."