As I dug in to my morning Muesli here on the Zurich lake I caught up with yesterday’s FT. There I read an amusing editorial about Barclays being the listening, theatrical bank that headed off a shareholder revolt by the skin of its teeth. It’s true though: in a very clumsy fashion, Barclays and its shareholders are forging a brave new world. The implications for financial PR are profound.
Barclays very nearly messed up its investor relations. To save the day and win them back onside, the board offered itself up for re-election next year, safe in the knowledge it would be almost certainly re-elected because abandoning them would decapitate shareholder value.
Here are a few tentative conclusions about how this all influences PR:
- Corporate governance is going to get a much-needed overhaul.
- It will be more closely linked to corporate objectives than it was in the pre-credit crunch period.
- The precise meaning and substance of words such as executive responsibility, accountability, transparency of different types of risk, shareholder value and stakeholder rights are going to require fleshing out fully for pubic understanding and endorsement.
- PRs are going to have to tone down talking about governance in terms of a corporation’s relationship to society (CSR etc.).
- PRs are going to have to communicate how corporate governance is linked to corporate actions, assets and how its agents must be focused on achieving the corporate objectives established by shareholders.
- Bonuses are already being so linked. Barclays was right to remove that red-rag from the equation (UBS and other banks are doing the same)
- So, the concept of stakeholding and stakeholders is going to be more precisely defined and their power – where it exists – exerted more forcibly (L&G and institutional investors just showed how at Barclays).
- Institutional shareholders have a responsibility not only to themselves and to their investments, but in the cases of the likes of L&G they have our pensions in their hands.
- So, shareholder democracy is going to make a welcome revival.
- But shareholder democracy is not about one-person-one vote as many Sids mistakenly presume (over to PR to make the case clear).
- Moreover, governments, regulators and the media are going to police private financial institutions and the private sector more robustly than in the past. But, just like Barclays shows today, business will try to break free from the state’s grip: they will often be lauded for their independence of mind.
- Compliant or feisty, financial firms will have a lot of explaining to do. PR will play a big role in explaining the various strategies firms adopt to salvage their reputations. After all, PR is the only tool firms have when they seek to take the fourth estate and public opinion with them.
- Barclays is showing that sensible, even courageous, risk-taking is still desirable and can win plaudits. But all financial strategies – even timid ones – will now be scrutinised in a new way. It’ll be a public process now.
In short, the concept of what constitutes corporate and the public interest will need much communication, some redefinition and a reality check. In the words of the FT:
For forcing the bank to pay attention, Barclays shareholders should take a bow. Other companies should take note.