Anthony Hilton: In-house comms keeps firms honest

One of the most astute analyses of the causes of the Libor rate-fixing affair focused on the role of the in-house lawyer.

Anthony Hilton: The in-house director of comms is becoming the new conscience of a company
Anthony Hilton: The in-house director of comms is becoming the new conscience of a company

The thesis was that the feeling among employees that it was acceptable to manipulate the Libor rate in order to make more money for the bank was a reflection of a rotten culture. The emphasis was on results to the extent that it no longer seemed to matter how they were achieved.

Obviously this culture is a reflection of the tone set by the board and the chief executive. It has always been thus. One thing is different, however, not just in banks but across the financial services industry. The reason why in some companies things appear to have gone badly off the rails is that the in-house lawyer, whose traditional role was to keep the company on the straight and narrow, no longer fulfils that role in the same way.

In earlier times when the lawyer saw behaviours in the organisation that he or she thought could be a source of reputational risk, they would inform the board that the policy was unacceptable and would have to be changed. Today the guidance is that the behaviour is unacceptable but if the company wants to continue with it, then it needs to structure it in a certain way. In other words, ensuring the corporate culture complied with the spirit of the law has given way to compliance with the letter of the law.

The risks are not just that some people will stray over the line, but that organisations will begin to behave in ways customers and the public believe are unacceptable. And it is this dichotomy that lies at the heart of the repeated mis-selling and other scandals that have bedevilled the financial services industry.

This is where the PR industry comes in. The in-house director of comms is becoming the new conscience of the company. According to the holder of the role in one of our biggest financial companies, external comms is now a very minor part of his life. The overwhelming emphasis is internal, spotting where the company is behaving badly, forcing the matter to the attention of the board and getting it stopped before it causes real damage.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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