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."
Saturn Dealer Says 'We're Still Here'
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.
Real or 'PR Fluff'?
Employee-centered campaigns can backfire and the recent Saturn push has garnered mixed reviews.
"The performances are swell and you believe that these people are speaking from their hearts and all that, but there's no way to watch these ads without concluding, 'Yes, we're still here but not for very long,' which does Saturn no good," said Bob Garfield, an advertising critic for the magazine Advertising Age.
Garfield reserves stiffer criticism for oil and chemical companies, which have featured employees in ads long before the latest recession.
"These are just so transparently manipulative and disingenuous that they're doing themselves no good by putting out this PR fluff," he said. "The majority of people cannot be fooled by what I believe are transparently disingenuous claims to folksy do-gooderness."
Exxon Scientists Talk Fuel Efficiency
Long at odds with environmental groups and others, oil and chemical companies have responded by "misrepresenting the scale and scope" of their public relations-friendly efforts while downplaying less popular pursuits, Garfield said.
"I wish I had a dollar for every company that put an employee in a lab coat and showed them improving crop yields worldwide ... while glossing over the fact that they're mainly covering the world with Saran Wrap."
Amid concerns about skyrocketing oil prices last year, oil giant Exxon Mobil began a new campaign featuring scientists discussing new technologies designed to increase fuel efficiency.
Company spokesman Alan Jeffers said that while it was difficult to quantify what percentage of the corporation's 80,000 employees were working on the initiatives described in the commercials, Exxon has devoted "a significant effort around energy efficiency."
Jeffers also said the company hasn't tried to hide the fact that the majority of its work centers on oil and gas.
"We acknowledge that all of the energy sources will be very important in meeting the energy challenges the world faces," he said.
Bringing ordinary employees into the promotional fold doesn't always mean big advertising campaigns.
Employees who believe in their company's products can have a substantial effect on sales just through word of mouth, said Steve Mooney, a managing director at the marketing firm Jack Morton Worldwide.
"Once you've got somebody passionate about a brand, they'll recommend it 17, 18 times; that becomes a geometric multiplier by which word of mouth spreads very quickly," he said.
Mooney's firm has worked with various corporate giants, including Bank of America and Verizon, to inspire their employees to become advocates for their brands, known in marketing circles as "brand passionates."
"They'll push harder, talk about it more and really affect the strength of your brand," he said.
The goal is also to boost employee morale within an organization, he said, which can improve performance and lower turnover.
If a company can't get its employees excited about its products, experts say, it'll be that much harder to appeal to the public.
Dezenhall said he expects to see more companies rolling out employee-centered campaigns. "There seems to be an undercurrent of the need to reassure people that the everyday person is being factored in," he said.
That contrasts with years ago, he added, when "you could really hype the glamour."