Categories: Crisis management / Trust and reputations / Zurich

3 December 2008

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UBS puts up decent PR show

Last week I had coffee with a PR executive who helped manage Thursday’s UBS shareholders’ meeting in Lucerne. We met at Sprüngli on the Paradeplatz, the branch of the posh chocolate, cake and coffee shop favoured by wives of Zurich gnomes. He gave me an insider’s account of his work to restore trust in the Swiss icon.

He said the bank’s strategy was to rebuild trust in its competence piece by piece, issue by issue. He described how UBS was managing a series of crises ranging from toxic debt, excessive executive bonuses, plunging share price and accusations of facilitating tax evasion and abusing banking secrecy rules in the US.

This was the fourth shareholders’ meeting of 2008. Besides ratifying a government bailout, he told me how Thursday’s meeting was about communicating that UBS’s culture is changing. It was about saying sorry again, and trashing the image of arrogance. It was also about reassuring stakeholders that investments in UBS were safe and about setting out the new course for the bank.

He stated that UBS was developing a formula for managing executive bonuses that the rest of the banking industry was sure to emulate. UBS chairman Peter Kurer certainly tackled the controversial bonus question head-on. He renounced his own bonus entitlement this year and announced:

We want to give shareholders a greater say in decisions on compensation. Starting with the general meeting in 2009, we will make our decisions on the principles and guidelines for compensation within the framework of a consultative vote.

This time around the sceptical audience was more subdued than at the other shareholder meetings. News that former UBS chairman Marcel Ospel and two colleagues had renounced their right to collect CHF33 million in bonus won some applause. But chairman Peter Kurer’s enthusiasm to clawback the bonuses of others won still more. However most of Peter Kurer’s speech was heard in silence.

My friend explained that on some issues the bank will just have to take the blows. For instance, when Peter Kurer praised board member Rainer-Marc Frey for his contribution to the bank, there were whistles of derision – this being the man who sold all his UBS shares before the worst of the you-know-what hit the fan. There was no news on the level of recent withdrawals from the bank, which fueled speculation that yet more taxpayer-cash would be required soon.

But Peter Kurer was certainly a contrite CEO. He said:

We have admitted to our mistakes several times in recent months – and have also apologized for them.

Some letters have accused us of arrogance and say that we need to get off of our high horse. This, too, may have had an element of truth in it in the past – at all levels.

But let me reassure you, ladies and gentlemen, there is no room for arrogance in the UBS of today – nor will there be in the UBS of tomorrow.

Peter Kurer, it seems, values the role of PR in ensuring UBS’s recovery. He even praised the around the clock work of his communications department to shareholders in Lucerne. My friend had nothing but praise for his chairman’s commitment to communication.

They would both agree, I think, with what Leslie Gaines-Ross says in her timely book Corporate Reputation, 12 Steps to Safeguarding and Recovering Reputation, recovering a lost reputation is a marathon task, not a sprint.

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