Cutting fees. Paying multimillion-dollar settlements. Breaking bread with the White House and regulators. Running promotional spots on the History Channel.
These are the baby steps Bank of America Corp. has taken to repair its battered image in the first six months of Brian Moynihan's tenure as chief executive.
People inside and outside B of A, of Charlotte, say it has made progress. But they concur that the biggest obstacle to a rehabilitated brand is — like at a lot of banks — convincing the public that the company is serious about stemming foreclosures.
"They have ambled back to being a 'big bank' as opposed to being the tallest person in the room," said Michael Robinson, a senior vice president at the crisis communications firm Levick Strategic Communications. "At least they're not facing the same issues they had a year ago when they were in the headlines every day."
Robinson is one of those who thinks it will take a lot of work and time to heal the black eye surrounding mortgages.
"There are some businesses that are inherently tough to make people happy," he said. "There is a need to talk to as many audiences as much as possible in different venues."
Andrew Plepler, B of A's global corporate social responsibility and consumer policy executive, called mortgages "a very frustrating issue for everyone."
He said in an interview last week that "we all want to see progress and momentum … and we're trying to lower the temperature and take some of the emotion out of the solutions we're working on."
The company's annual meeting in April provided a perfect summary of where B of A stands.
Moynihan presided over a much less fractious gathering than his predecessor, Ken Lewis, had overseen a year earlier when B of A was embroiled in controversy over its takeover of Merrill Lynch & Co and its federal bailout.
Some attendees this year praised B of A for its efforts to treat consumers better, such as limits on overdraft fees and improved disclosure practices, but B of A took heat from customers who had trouble modifying their mortgages. Unions and community groups protested outside, urging B of A to do more to help troubled borrowers.
And two weeks ago, a group tied to the Service Employees International Union held a vigil outside a B of A office in New York to complain about foreclosures. The group focused on two women who had recently lost their homes after mortgage modification efforts fell through.
"When you foreclose on someone, it's not just their home," said Edda Lopez, one of the women highlighted at the event. "It's their family, their history and their entire life."
Plepler said B of A is doing what it can to talk with more advocacy groups and highlight efforts to tackle mortgage issues. "We respect everyone's right to protest but when you use anecdotes to tell a bigger story it gets more emotional," he said. "I don't think that's consistent with the broader story and it doesn't necessarily get us to the best outcome. We don't want to be drowned out by the anecdotal story."
Plepler, who had been involved with Community Reinvestment Act efforts, said much of B of A's progress on other topics came from efforts to deepen ties to community groups. "We've pivoted a bit in how we use those relationships," he said, accepting input on how B of A can make products and programs more consumer friendly.
The $2.3 trillion-asset company's decision in March to block debit card purchases that would overdraw accounts came from discussions with the Consumer Federation of America and the New America Foundation. Those groups made a pitch for change at meetings with Susan Faulkner, B of A's consumer sales and service executive, and David Owen, the payment products executive.
"These conversations have translated into some specific decisions that show that we're serious about this, and that this isn't just a political effort," Plepler said.
B of A appears to have a much more relaxed relationship with Washington since Moynihan took over. He has been invited to Washington several times, including a state dinner hosted by President Obama last month.
The thawed relationship could also be seen in how B of A has publicly handled financial reform. While executives elsewhere lashed out, Moynihan was among the first big bank CEOs to publicly back a consumer protection agency. He also dodged a prime opportunity to attack Washington lawmakers during a presentation earlier this month: after acknowledging at a conference hosted by Sanford C. Bernstein that certain aspects of financial reform would reduce revenue, he declared that B of A should be able to "win with our franchise and our positioning."
Still, Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group LLC, said many of B of A's actions have nothing to do with altruism — and Moynihan's primary focus remains making money. Pointing to the elimination of overdraft protection, he said, it was "more about realizing that the money required for making changes to comply with federal law wasn't worth it."
Moynihan made a similar point at the Bernstein appearance. "It's not a great business model if we were out opening millions of checking accounts … and then have millions run off because we were hitting them with fees," he said. "The model had to shift a little bit. To be a mass-market player, I think you have to be reasonable and meet customers halfway."
Whether B of A's bottom-line and public policy needs will converge in mortgage modifications remains to be seen. For now, B of A prefers to promote the bigger picture: more than 71,000 traditional mortgage modifications this year and another 70,000 permanent modifications under the government's Home Affordable Modification Program. Despite those efforts, B of A had another 250,000 customers in trial modifications at March 31. The biggest rancor at the annual meeting came from customers who failed to get permanent modifications after completing the trial process.
It's a tough sell. "The number of loans modified seems like a large number but most of us aren't impacted by that," Shevlin said. "It doesn't really move the needle for the overall trust factor in their customer base."
B of A has taken other steps, too. Earlier this month, it reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission to pay $108 million to settle charges that Countrywide Financial Corp., which it bought in July 2008, collected excessive fees from more than 200,000 mortgage borrowers.
Robinson said B of A can do more to improve public relations. Though he lauded a collaboration with the History Channel that highlights B of A's historical role reshaping America, he said more can be done in small markets — more baby steps can be taken. "Going forward, they do not succeed with one front-page story" in a national newspaper, he said. "They succeed with 100 articles in the local papers in the markets where they do business."
Plepler noted B of A used paid media to promote the decision on overdrafts and to highlight home loan efforts. "You're likely to see more of that," he said.