News analysis: Bonus sacrifices are no long-term fix for banks' reputations

It is nearly seven years since the start of the global financial meltdown and bank chiefs are still giving up their bonuses in an effort to soothe public opinion, but City PR figures say the strategy isn't working.

Barclays' Antony Jenkins is the latest bank chief to pass up his bonus
Barclays' Antony Jenkins is the latest bank chief to pass up his bonus

When the cracks in banks' balance sheets and collective reputation started appearing in 2007 few people would have expected that corporate giants would still be waiving their bonuses in 2014.

However, with the extent of the excesses and wrongdoing across the sector still coming to light, and two of the UK's major high street banks still partly state-owned, the public perception of once trustworthy names remains at rock bottom.

This month Barclays chief executive Antony Jenkins said it "would not be right" to accept his 2013 bonus – estimated at anything up to £2.75m – due to costs incurred by the bank to address legacy litigation and conduct issues.

The apparently magnanimous gesture was applauded initially, but further digging revealed that he still stands to walk away with around £4m in shares next month due to his long-term incentive scheme.

Despite similar moves by a long line of bank CEOs over the years, there is scant evidence of any positive impact on the sector’s reputation.

New research shows the public is not impressed by the way in which banks have communicated on bonuses. A specially commissioned survey by PRWeek/OnePoll of 2,000 people found that 72.5 per cent of respondents did not believe banks in general had communicated the issue of bankers’ bonuses effectively, while more than 80 per cent said banks should be doing more to explain bonuses as part of their PR plan.

"When it comes to bankers’ pay, waiving bonuses is a very short-term measure and people see through it, so as a way of enhancing banks’ reputation long-term, it’s not going to work and clearly people realise it’s not sustainable or realistic," says Damian Reece, the former head of business at the Telegraph Group.

Reece, who is now managing partner and deputy CEO of the capital markets division at Instinctif Partners, believes the bonus debate will not go away until banks do a better job of explaining how they benefit Britain.

"Bankers’ remuneration will always remain a reputational liability until the banks can show effectively what they are doing for their money and what they are actually contributing to the economy and to their customers. Until they do that in a compelling way and communicate that, bonuses will always be a problem."

Patrick Donovan, managing director of Citigate Dewe Rogerson, says senior bankers waiving bonuses can work, but only if it is part of a consistent and transparent approach to comms.

"If a CEO wants to be seen to take more personal responsibility for a business’ underperformance, then the decision to forego a bonus will generate a certain amount of support from the media and other stakeholders – but this has to be seen as more than a one-off PR gesture to be wholly credible," he argues.

At RBS, the bank that is perhaps the most sensitive to public opinion with the government still under water on its 80 per cent stake, the new boss has taken the bonus sacrifice one step further.

When he signed up for the job last year Ross McEwan refused to take any annual bonus until 2015 – albeit his man of the people gesture was somewhat cushioned by a £3.2m "golden hello".

Lansons chief executive Tony Langham argues that the public needs to be encouraged to accept that bonuses are not necessarily undeserved. "I think that long term we need to live in a society where people accept that it’s fair that wealth creators get bonuses and that is clearly what matters. Short term there are a whole load of other things going on, not least political pressure of course, which for some of the banks is closer than with others, but for all of them it’s about influencing public opinion."

However, he adds: "I don’t think that sacrificing bonuses is achieving much, I don’t think it’s fundamentally changing public opinion towards bankers. So as it’s not changing opinion of bankers or banks, is it working?"

It appears that financial sacrifices by the men at the top are only acting as a short-term fix for negative headlines.

The real battle to be won surrounds banks’ social purpose and legitimacy, which requires a much strategic approach.

But while bankers remain public shorthand for gambling chancers, expect the PR merry-go-round around bonuses to be an annual event.

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