Iain Anderson, Cicero Consulting - Comms is a two-way street

The finance sector should not counter media banker bashing with a 'heads down' approach.

More than five years have passed since the financial crisis began and it is self-evident that the financial sector, wider businesses and consumers alike still feel the effects. Whatever your viewpoint, one thing remains clear: the reputation of the banking sector is a constant headline.

It is frequently caricatured as unrepentant in the public discourse and 'banker bashing' has become a cultural pastime across the Western world.

Banks, and other financial institutions by association, are portrayed as no longer trustworthy or a social good. The latest polling shows clearly that the public and policymakers think 'finance' is all the same.

Overall media coverage continues to be relentlessly unfavourable. Any story involving a financial institution often snowballs beyond a sensible narrative.

Negative print headlines and broadcast debates have shaped the public's image of banking.

It is no surprise, therefore, that recent Cicero research, Changing the Conversation - How can retail banks rebuild their reputation? (available at cicero-group.com), finds that 59 per cent of financial services professionals think UK media coverage does not fairly portray the retail banking sector.

Finance remains vital for UK plc. It is one of the few sectors where we have a clear comparative advantage and a huge trade surplus.

Increasingly, because of our specialism, I am being brought into wider economic campaigns around infrastructure finance, welfare and health reforms, intellectual property, tax reform and exporting.

How we finance economic growth is the core question.

So the immediate challenge for finance is the ability and, crucially, willingness to communicate not only with the media, but with the wider public to show underlying value.

Our research results make particularly interesting reading in this regard as they represent the views held by those working within the industry. We polled senior management not just from within the City of London, but from across the UK and from a wide range of relevant organisations.

Ninety-four per cent of respondents felt the traditional retail banking sector was portrayed negatively or very negatively. The challenge remains that public animosity will not go away in a hurry.

A large part of the media debate revolves around the idea that change will only come through regulatory and structural reforms, but, as many of the respondents acknowledge, organisations should be willing to engage in sensible conversation, not only with the media, regulators and policymakers, but also with their retail customers, businesses and the real economy more widely.

Just as the opportunities of the digital conversation have opened up for the wider economy, the challenge for finance is to overcome regulatory resistance towards an open conversation with customers.

There must be a more grown-up debate with the new regulatory regime to allow finance to reconnect with its customer base.

Finance as a whole has a PR problem. But this should not be a cue to raise the barricades and put a stop to openly connecting with the public, media and policymakers.

In an open, digital world the 'heads down' approach simply will not do. Equally, finance needs to learn to listen as well as to promote its own messages. The tools are available.

This is a two-way street.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- What is the biggest challenge in producing PR campaigns in your sector?

Creating a genuine two-way conversation and not just 'push out' comms.

- Tell us about the most successful partnership you have set up to support a piece of activity

Working with Age UK on pension saving and promoting policy change to improve women's pensions.

- If you did not work in PR what would you be doing?

In politics or part of the professional commentariat rather than the bloggertariat.

Iain Anderson is chief corporate counsel at Cicero Consulting.

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