Anthony Hilton: RBS' Hester learns to play PR game

It was obvious at the time that Stephen Hester, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, was unprepared for the storm that broke over his pay at the time of the bank's results and that led, after a few days, to his having to turn down a £1m bonus.

Anthony Hilton: RBS' Hester learns to play PR game
Anthony Hilton: RBS' Hester learns to play PR game

His unpreparedness was a symptom of a management that had failed to communicate. Whatever he and his colleagues thought they had achieved and deserved, that understanding was not shared by the outside world. The gulf in perception was too wide to bridge.

Losing his bonus was unjust on Hester but more than anything he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was no part of the original banking debacle and came in to implement a rescue plan only after the taxpayer-funded bail-out and departure of Sir Fred Goodwin. But the subsequent behaviour of bankers across the piste has been poisonous in its effect.

But Hester seems to have learned from the experience. In the past few weeks he has begun to get out more and in a series of speeches, most notably a few days ago at the Manchester Business School, he has - really for the first time since his very early days in office - sought to explain what the RBS job involves, how the problems are being tackled, the progress so far and his vision for the future. In his remarks he said that 'getting out and telling the story is vital' and that is clearly what he is now trying to do - though it does seem rather sad that it has taken the row over his bonus to bring 'telling the story' to the top of the agenda. Actions don't always speak louder than words - people also have to be told.

The big question now is whether Hester will stick at it, given the other pressures on his time. I once asked Tony Blair how he could bear to make the same speech over and over again and still make it sound fresh. He replied that only when you have repeated a message to the point where you are heartily sick of it, is there any real likelihood that it is beginning to get through to the public. Hester has said ruefully that he underestimated how intense, critical and long-lasting would be the media scrutiny of his bank. I fear he may also underestimate the time and effort needed to restore trust and respect.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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