Bill Nichols

6 April 2013

Bill Nichols

Something Fishy and A New Narrative for Misunderstood Bankers

005 (April 2013)

A fun week for communicators.  ‘Candour’ duly re-appeared.  Fresh from its outing in the Francis NHS Staffs report, it featured in the Salz review of the Barclays Bank brouhaha. And alongside the ‘mass bloodletting’ (Financial Times) of ex-senior HBOS figures by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

So candour is now definitely the ‘new black’ in comms and the poster-child for authenticity.

Meantime, please also welcome back the horsemeat saga. This time though in the guise of dodgy and decidedly not-so-candid fish.  (A development predicted, note, with unusual foresight in my previous blog!).

So consumer trust is getting a battering (sorry couldn’t resist) on all sides. But how do you restore a bank’s – or, er, a fish supply chain’s – reputation?

Reflecting on this rather seasick week, here are comments and recommendations from an anonymous banking insider.

“All this vitriol is unfair.  Simply out-of-order.   We need a new narrative.  Truth is we’re just an ordinary bunch of corporate managers.  Just like you’d meet in any wine bar, five-star hotel or business class anywhere.  We’ve the same motive as everyone else too.  It’s just that our opportunity was that much greater. Not our fault that it was more than the usual fiddled expenses. And the means?  Well what a smokescreen: no one understood how it worked and, let’s be fair, neither did we!

“Actually it’s doubly unfair to blame us current senior bankers.  Banks have been in the reputation ‘toilet’ for decades.   Back before 2008 they didn’t give a fig for the average lazy ‘can’t be bothered to switch’ customer: couch cash-cows we called them.  Consumers’ problem: not ours.  And as for the typical SME, to be honest banks provided a social service.  I mean, imagine looking after the local corner-shop?  All that cash, greasy banknotes, messy transactions and endless aggravation over the overdraft.

“So what then about candour and transparency?  Simply isn’t going to happen.  Give it a couple more years and it’ll all blow over.  The politicians and the lawyers, they know it.  They’re all in the same game.  £17 million for the Salz report: see what I mean?

“Now if you really wanted to fix the banks (or any other large corporate), you’d first, as the Yanks say, put the bosses right behind the eight-ball.  Never mind BASLE III and some computation no one understands.  You’d enshrine in statute clear lines of responsibility and accountability for company officers alongside total individual liability. Like the old partnership model.  Then reputation would really count.  It would be a constant risk – every moment of every day.  The senior guys would have to care!  (But imagine that principle applied in government departments or the NHS.  The politicians would never dare!).

Second, build reputation management into the banks’ risk assessment structures alongside the numbers.   That would put reputation clearly and decisively on the board.    But hey the comms girlies just do that CSR flannel right?

Third, devolve power consistently to the local branches.  Make community engagement (community knowledge and practical empowered local communications) a fundamental principle of how we banks do business.  It would transform perceptions – and performance.

Fourth and finally, take a lesson from all those proud fish-and-chip shop owners on TV this week.  The best of them know all their customers and can tell them which trawler caught which fish – even at what time!  Now imagine you knew your banker’s name. Met them socially.  Bought local services from local people.  That they could even confirm – like the old-style local building societies – the source of your loan.  In short imagine that you were connected. That you trusted and were trusted.

“Wow, what a fantasy.   Isn’t going to happen.  We’ll be more careful.  Maybe bung the government some more tax.  OK there’ll be something fishy from time to time.   But what’s to worry in the odd bad smell?  Or the odd Salzy report?”


Bill Nichols

10 March 2013

Bill Nichols

More than Burgers and Bolognese: Crisis, Trust and Exit Strategy

004 -March 2013

Some eight weeks on, the horse-meat saga has generated thousands of tasteless jokes (sorry) and cringe-making headlines.  More significantly, it has corroded trust in major retailers.  Among consumers most prominently.  But also across the web of stakeholder relationships which sustain major organisations.

Late last week Tesco fought back.  Understandably.  Alone among their peers, they faced a triple whammy:   still-eroding trust;  record low satisfaction scores in the latest ‘Which?’ survey; and continuing media speculation over the firm’s turnaround strategy.  Serious pain in the corporate communications office.  Ouch.

And credit where it’s due.  The firm’s new mono-print, crystal-clear message to customers is a model.  Dispensing with usual legalese, corporate muzak and CSR harmonies, this is comms writing at its audience-engaging best.   The crisis is, Tesco acknowledges in near-passable blank verse, about more than “burgers and Bolognese… We know that all this will only work if we are/open about what we do…  Seriously/This is it/We are changing.”

Called to comment on BBC 5 Live’s Saturday breakfast show, I doused detached amusement under the 6AM shower and focused.   And… well the horse-meat case offers a compelling new perspective. Here’s why.

Most crises (and crisis texts) have a clear flashpoint or ‘crime’ (fire, oil-spill, hospital infection, sexual misconduct).  They offer a caste of ‘victims’.   Quick wins for politicians, commentators and bloggers alike.  In response, practitioners can deploy admirable models, processes and procedures.   Granted they’re too rarely rehearsed and applied, yet readily available.

But here the only flashpoint is a pub joke.  Lots of murky dealings. But no deaths.  No injuries.  No victims.  And no clear focus for crisis recovery.

So, unusually, the horse-meat case exposes the submerged side of a crisis ‘iceberg’. As a wonderfully-colourful crime-fiction narrative plays out in the headlines, reputational damage accelerates.  Rather like the MPs’ expenses case and the Daily Telegraph’s long, painful exposure, this could run for months and months.  For fake receipts, dodgy home-lettings, gardeners and freshly-cleaned moats, read – maybe – fish, dairy products, vegetables, fruit…

Robust social psychology models, meanwhile, confirm that trust (together with satisfaction – hence Tesco’s action) is a major determinant of all types of stakeholder retention.   Responsibility (the buck stops with Tesco) correlates positively with reputational damage and negatively with purchasing intentions (*).

So the case reminds crisis comms practitioners that, like military planners, they should look beyond prevention/deterrence, mission and securing the immediate target to the long-term exit strategy.  When the lights are off, the noise abated and the tweeting stilled, how do we emerge with our reputation asset intact – even enhanced?  How do we keep CEOs focused on the tough stuff?

Many compliments to that anonymous copywriter.  It is, most certainly, about more than burgers and Bolognese.

(*) Coombs (2012).