Varnished History

Citigroup's documentary about its history aims for Ken Burns but comes closer to Spinal Tap.

Citigroup wants to change — so much so that an internal Web site about its change program is labeled citigroup.net/companywewanttobe. It was in the service of this "companywewanttobe" that the financial-services behemoth screened on March 1 a new documentary for its 300,000 employees.

The Story of Citigroup: 100 Countries, 200 Years is the first step in CEO Charles Prince's "five-point plan" aimed at shoring up the company's ethics. It's an ambitious undertaking, and Prince appears serious about "shared responsibilities" — to clients, to employees, and to the firm's franchise. As we're told: "Our reputation rests on the integrity and dedication of those that came before us."

The documentary itself won't be featured in any film classes — but in the tawdry realm of corporate propaganda, there has been worse. The first bit, a Ken Burns-lite depiction of the original City Bank of New York, is rich with pen-and-ink sketches and interviews with historians. Oh, for the days when Isaac Wright helped create a monthly transatlantic shipping service and Moses Taylor worked to fund the Union campaign of the Civil War.

But this squeaky-clean narrative also celebrates "Sunshine Charley" Mitchell, who helped invent consumer banking in the 1920s but was vilified for pitching bonds and stocks to consumers just before the Crash of 1929. That part didn't make the final cut. We learn only that "Charley Mitchell is remembered by some as a controversial figure."

Then there's the kid-glove treatment given to Sandy Weill, who merged his Travelers Group with Citicorp in 1998 to form Citigroup. Not surprisingly, Weill appears often: There he is, waving regally with wife Joan at his side — a Brooklyn-born Prince Charles.

It's hard to stomach Weill describing how he gave up "corporate jets for a tourist seat on the commuter flight to Baltimore" after he resigned from American Express in 1985 and took over the company that became Travelers. Sure, he "resigned" — but only because he lost a power struggle with CEO Jim Robinson.

More galling is the silky-voiced narrator's assertion that "Smith Barney has always maintained an impeccable reputation." Have those eminent historians forgotten the Long Island "boom boom" room? Jack Grubman's notorious upgrade of AT&T stock? (How are the twins these days, anyway?) The special pre-IPO shares for favored clients?

Early employee reviews of Citi's corp-umentary were reasonably positive. "It gives people a sense of belonging and grounding," said one salesman who watched with about 500 colleagues. "I didn't hear any snickering." In a culture built around money, that's not faint praise. And granted, a film meant to make people feel good about their corporate history can't linger on all the dark moments.

But ultimately, effective communications are rooted in authenticity — and this film is only selectively authentic. In that failure, it subverts Prince's hope for change.

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