Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Barclays, Natwest and the banking confidence crisis – PR disaster or PR opportunity?

I am going to start this column with a quote: “We need to recognise that you’ve got to solve it from the top down. If the leaders have the collective will to recognise that they have a reputational problem to solve, then its more likely to produce the right answer” That was Marcus Agius the then Chairman of Barclays Bank speaking just last October.

Consumer confidence in the banking sector is rock bottom. NatWest’s recent IT meltdown was followed quickly by Barclays £290m fine for fixing the libor rates leading its chairman and CEO to go. Barclays YouGov Brand Index score, a survey which measures the average of how customers rate the brand in terms of impression, quality, value and reputation slumped from -0.8 to -24.2 the day after the fine. Clearly it and other banks have a lot of work to do to repair their collective reputations in the eyes of the general consumer. The question of how to do this is probably high on the lips of the senior management team and especially the marketing heads. So for a professional opinion I asked two leading local PR agencies for their view.

Rachael Paddick is from Jungle PR and is Chair of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in East Anglia. Rachael comments:
“Barclays has already bolstered its PR resource (why wait for crisis point before taking the influential power of communications seriously?) and the first job will be to refocus its communications strategy. Serious questions need to be answered - were internal communications to blame? What sort of organisation does it want to be?”

“The bank needs to engage with its customers on an honest and human level; after all, ‘sorry, we’re working on it’ is better than ‘no comment’. Values, ethics and codes of conduct need to be scrutinised, adhered to and then reflected across all communications. Restoring faith and showing a commitment to positive, ongoing change is the key.  And on the upside? If handled correctly this could be an opportunity for Barclays to improve perceptions of the banking industry as a whole, not just for itself.”

Liz Cooper, Head of PR at OneAgency in Norwich agreed adding:
“First and foremost, we’d be advising Barclays to put a revised crisis comms plan in place that considers all the mistakes made. Research into their reputation with their audiences will dictate messaging and tone going forward, both completely misread by the bank first time round.”

“Particular attention should be paid to timings. In a social world, which saw the news in 49 percent of twitter feeds by lunchtime on the day the news leaked, prevarication is not an option. You can’t be too proud to learn from your mistakes and an improved comms plan will provide the basis for better PR – for when a similar situation arises.” 

Public relations is often an undervalued channel, like many other undervalued marketing disciplines such as market research, with many dismissing it as simply writing the odd press release and hoping for a few column inches.  PR expertise though will now be at the forefront of the banks attempts to re-gain consumer confidence. Unfortunately it often takes a crisis for many business owners to recognise the value of such companies and their work.

Tim Youngman is head of digital marketing for Archant - follow him on Twitter @timyoungman   

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