Categories: Credit Crunch / Crisis management / Media issues / Trust and reputations

23 January 2009

One comment

Bankers shouldn’t blame the media. They should join it

PR Week reports that the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) executive director of communications Lesley McLeod says the banks are getting a bum rap because of “inexperienced’” reporters who “fail to understand the crisis” or the “issues” it presents. What, and the BBA has to sit idly by? Why doesn’t it get stuck in?

The BBA communication team seem to think they are in the audience. Why aren’t they on the stage directing their own drama?

It is clear that the banks are getting a bad media rap. It might also be true that journalists do not understand the credit crunch and the recession well. However none of that justifies the BBA’s moan.

There’s been a chronic shortage of banking spokespeople lining up to tell us what’s been going on.

The notable exception being John Varley of independently-minded Barclays. That one is also a hard sell. The Times reports confidence and trust are at such a low-ebb that Barclays’ £5.3 billion or more expected profit has not improved perception:

As a public relations brief, it is the financial equivalent of defending vivisection or the transportation of nuclear waste through a pretty village: you think your case is solid and justifiable, but no matter how hard you argue it, nobody wants to listen.

We certainly don’t need lots of PR spokespeople speaking up as much as lots of senior people explaining themselves. But Lesley McLeod tells PR Week:

The story has moved away from financial journalists either because newspapers do not have the staff any longer or because it is dealt with on the news pages. Clearly some of these journalists do not have an understanding of the issues.

A lot of these people are now either inexperienced or they’re taking [information] directly from PA.

According to McLeod, the Treasury PR machine is more interested in communicating political messages than the financial intricacies to the media. So what’s new? Their first loyalty is to their political bosses. Neither that fact nor media “illiteracy” about banking issues should surprise.

In the early 1990s as head of media relations at the Council of Mortgage Lenders I saw for myself how bad news gets politicised fast. It is an old challenge listed on every well-rehearsed crisis management plan.

The problems the banks face are of wider importance to the firms PRs represent. There is a pressing need to develop PR strategies for this recession and the recovery that will follow. At stake is the restoration of trust in financial institutions and much more.

The way forward is for PR machines to take responsibility for communicating their messages to audiences.

The swift disintermediation of traditional media institutions creates opportunities for PRs to create their own media. For instance, if the media are so bad, where was the brilliant bankers’ website(s) daily pumping out the good stuff so readers could go to the horse’s mouth without the intermediation of the useless press (if that’s what it is)?

Today’s bankers can create their own Web-based media machine easily and cheaply – print, TV, radio, interactive and direct. There are numerous platforms to exploit from YouTube and Facebook to Twitter; and a thousand others that the banks can invent. They are not reliant on traditional media to get across their point.

New media or Next Media – as Charlie Beckett of POLIS calls it – allows them to communicate proactively over the heads of or alongside traditional media. In that sense Obama shows the way forward. He has created online network ready to mobilise. He uses his network to interact with and influence the mainstream media agenda.

Don’t get this wrong. “Old” media are not redundant and “new” media triumphant. It is not that simple. There are no substitutes. More it acknowledges that there is a new way to cement bonds with stakeholders. Effective communication today requires a more public participatory and connected process, with journalists no longer being gatekeepers, but facilitators, and news being more of a process, or service.

Banks are walking a tightrope. They have savers, borrowers, shareholders and taxpayers to consider. The forces at work are contradictory, and often their interests are irreconcilable. It is no wonder, then, that the media have lots of conflict to report and different interest groups’ gripes, fears and worries to portray.

The banks, on the other hand, have unique insight. They should be explaining the banking crisis, nationalisation…credit crunch…extent of liabilities such as toxic mortgage debt, and promoting the solutions for rebooting the system. Banks and their PRs have to make plain how things really are. Moaning will not do.

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One response to “Bankers shouldn’t blame the media. They should join it”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    I real that article in PR Week in astonishment. It is vital in PR that we realise who the influencers are – and to simply expect to work with our “expert” media is both naive and short-sighted.

    Of course, if the banks and their PR folk had been more open and communicative initially and not played the game of making the general public and non-financial press feel that finance was something they couldn’t understand, we might all be a bit better informed.

    Starting from where we are now, rather than bleat about not being understood, banks need to start to win back the trust they used to have before they became so focused on selling and forgot about being a respectable part of the fabric of society – especially at a local level.

    I think they need to get off the high horse and back to the grassroots – how many banks have bothered to explain to any of their stakeholders what is going on? Those of us who have money or mortages with those banks affected by the crisis have had zero personal communications,for example.

    We need better PR/mediated communications, but also direct contact at the personal level to regain trust to overcome years of arrogance.