Financial services firms admitted that they invited negative public perception by their actions, or inactions, according to the 2012 Makovsky Wall Street Reputation Study.

Negative public opinion topped the list of challenges financial firms need to overcome this year, according to the study.

The study also revealed that nearly three in four respondents, or 74%, believe that increased regulation of the financial services industry will help their firms improve reputations and trust with customers faster. Moreover, 81% of the marketing executives are worried about negative public reaction to executive compensation in the industry.

Another important trend discovered in the study, according to Makovsky executive vice president and financial services practice head Scott Tangney, respondents now consider rebuilding their reputation, by way of management or product and service quality, as “most critical.”

“There has been a shift in priority from recovering and stabilizing to focusing on customer satisfaction, employee communications and improving public perception,” Tangney said in a statement. “Our study reveals that companies are in transition, and this new strategy involves both external and internal integrated communications efforts.”

The study also revealed that 53% of respondents said that Occupy Wall Street had a real impact on their business. Furthermore, 71% said they expect Occupy Wall Street will continue beyond the presidential election in the fall. Thirty-eight percent of executives said they were surprised by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“With the six-month anniversary of the movement sparking a resurgence, the consensus is that Occupy Wall Street is not going away anytime soon, and financial services executives need to be better prepared to address this issue moving forward,” Tangney said.

Moreover, when asked to give a public relations grade for the financial services industry, 57% of the respondents graded “average,” “below average” or “failing.” Only 34% graded the industry “above average” and 9% said “perfect.”

On the subject of firms with best corporate reputation, more than one third of communications and marketing executives reported Wells Fargo, at 36%, or Bank of America, with 35%. Other top firms named were Citibank, 27%, and Chase, at 12%.

“While many of these institutions have had prominent public relations challenges, they are the ones which have been the most visible in addressing their constituencies,” said Tangney. “We believe that this proactive approach has boosted their image among industry peers."

Meanwhile, more than half of financial services marketing or communications executives said that their company’s social media efforts have had a neutral impact on managing their reputation. Slightly more than 40% felt it had a positive impact on their company.

The study is the result of interviews with 150 senior marketing officers at large and mid-sized financial service institutions, both private and publicly traded. It was conducted by Echo Research from February 22 through March 1, 2012, at a variety of different kinds of financial firms, including asset managers, brokerages, banks and insurers.

Tommy Fernandez writes for Money Management Executive.