As tales of corporate excess continue to roil the public, some companies hope to appeal to cynical consumers with an image very different from that of the bonus-bearing, jet-setting CEO: Rank-and-file employees are taking center stage.
When business suffers, employees "can put a true face on the people that pay the price," said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association.
The travel industry is among the latest to try to shift the spotlight onto the hard-working masses. The industry contends that public pressure to cancel business trips threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs. Among the most notable examples is Wells Fargo, which recently received $25 billion in government funds, putting the kibosh on its Las Vegas retreat after public outcry in February.
"There's been a lot of public anger … directed at CEOs," Freeman said. "What we've seen in our industry, victims of that anger are not the CEOs … it's the people that make the travel industry unique and vibrant: hourly wage workers, meeting planners, small businesses."
To wit, the association, which represents myriad hotel chains and theme parks, is asking travel industry employees to apply to become their "Faces of Travel," spokespeople who will meet with policymakers, talk to the media and possibly appear in advertisements.
A video posted on the association's Web site features "Ricky," a hotel doorman in Washington, D.C., who says he relies on his job to pay his bills and feed his family. (Watch Ricky's video below.)
Emphasizing the roles of everyday employees is a legitimate strategy for companies under attack, experts say.
"The billionaires flying around on private jets are few and far between but, nevertheless, when the economy is bad, there is this tendency to think of corporations in the most despicable ways possible," crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall said. "There is something to be said for reminding the public that a corporation is just a collection of very normal individuals."
For automaker Saturn, those normal individuals include its auto dealers. A campaign rolled out last month features narratives by dealership owners like Todd Ingersoll of Connecticut.
Ailing parent company General Motors, which has been kept afloat by billions in government aid, announced plans earlier this year to stop making new Saturn models by 2011. Among Saturn fans, hope remains that the company will be spun off into an independent entity.
In the meantime, in a national commercial, Ingersoll touts the company's new models and reassures customers that Saturn "is still here."
"Saturn's a car company that was founded on doing things differently," he says in the commercial. "And, more importantly, it's the way we still are."
Other ads in Saturn's campaign included dealers talking about fuel efficiency and building the cars that Americans want.
Saturn flew Ingersoll out to California to film the spot. On his flight there, Ingersoll told ABCNews.com, he had his dealership employees and other Saturn workers on his mind.
"You've got to give up some of your time to help the greater good, to get everybody selling cars," he said.
Employee-centered campaigns can backfire and the recent Saturn push has garnered mixed reviews.