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Merrie Spaeth: Capitalism Kaput?

The idea of capitalism has always drawn mixed reaction, but the scales seem to tip even more toward the negative of late. Commentator Merrie Spaeth says it's time for big business to get pro-active.

At a recent conference in Dallas, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey said capitalism had a "branding problem." But Mr. Mackey is right. Capitalism - that is, economies which allocate capital via the free market as opposed to central planning and state ownership - is under attack. Since the Occupy Wall Street movement took off, other prominent writers and CEOs are urging business to do more to educate the public and that proponents of a free market system are at risk if they ignore public anger.

Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib wrote a column headlined, "Populist Anger over Economy Carries Risks for Big Business," and notes that many people think businesses are "hoarding" cash and not hiring. Business associations reply that consumer demand is weak; government debt is skyrocketing; there is incredible uncertainty over potential tax increases, and there's a tsunami of regulations from Washington. That's all true, but it doesn't speak to the average guy who's worried about, or out of a job, and who sees that American companies cut their work force in the U.S. but jobs abroad.

The natural gas industry and banking in particular need to reach out. Even Conoco Phillips chairman James Multa says, "The industry must demystify its work by better explaining to the public how we find and develop natural gas, our techniques and safeguards."

He recognizes that opponents of fracking, the new extractive method which shatters rock deep underground, charge it causes earthquakes, pollutes ground water and worse.

Banking. Well, do I need to recount the attack that banks are under for B&B, "bailouts" and "bonuses?" The problem is, those are the big banks. The nation's community banks are the economic life blood of their communities, and they're being overwhelmed by that flood of regulations we just mentioned.

Why should these industries care? Because the equation has changed. Another speaker at the Dallas conference said, "the consumer is driving the bus today." He's right. A young woman named Molly Katchpole was angered by Bank of America's proposed $5 fee for monthly debit card holders. While holding down two part time jobs, she set up a website and started a petition. 300,000 people signed it. BofA backed off the fee, and other big banks cancelled their plans for similar fees.

Both industries need to step up what I call their retail or their person-to-person communication. Just like a campaign, anywhere people gather, show up - not to preach, but to answer questions and to talk. Talk about customers, employees and maybe even individual investors. Become master story tellers. Banks can tell stories about the customers they are helping.

Here's a typical story. One North Texas bank helped a man who never graduated from high school but had worked as a plumber turn his skill into a business. Equipment is expensive, and they provided financing. The man now employs several other people.

Natural gas is clean, plentiful and the industry is committed to safety. They should be telling the safety and clean fuel story over and over - in person, not just in advertisements. And speak to PTAs, the National Association of Women Business Owners, civic clubs. Even five minutes gives a speaker from the industry an opportunity to explain that they care, they're committed to making a difference and they listen. When you show up to talk to people in person, it sends a very different message than an ad. It makes it personal.

Ms. Katchpole has a tattoo which says "empathy." Let's show the American public she has lots of company - and we mean business.

Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant from Dallas.

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