News Analysis: FSA stumbles in its balancing act

Set up to police the UK's financial services, the FSA is facing charges of bias. Tom Williams asks if hiring a PR agency will be enough to guard its reputation.

Pity the Financial Services Authority. Set up during New Labour's first term in office, it now covers no less than six separate areas in financial services alone: bank deposit taking, insurance, investment, mortgage lending, mortgage advice and general insurance advice.

Its role is to keep an industry not accustomed to external interference in check, while heeding consumers' complaints about individual companies and educating the public about financial products.

Small wonder then that in its mission to bring about an organised, efficient and fair financial services market, and keep consumers satisfied, the FSA is looking for PR support.

Crisis of confidence

While the FSA has used agencies before, its current tender for a firm to take on its multi-faceted comms challenges comes as the FSA itself is suffering a crisis of confidence.

Last month, the FSA's former top legal adviser Michael Blair criticised the way the regulator had apparently spun the result of an appeal to the Financial Services and Markets Tribunal against one of its decisions.

Legal & General had challenged a £1.1m fine the FSA had imposed on it for endowment mis-selling. Although the tribunal partially upheld the FSA's decision, it criticised the FSA's Regulatory Decisions Committee (RDC) for errors in assessing the evidence against L&G.

In a press release announcing the tribunal's decisions, the FSA omitted all mention of the RDC and played down the rejection of its finding that L&G's mis-selling had been 'systemic', a key part of its original case against the company.

In the brouhaha that followed, L&G called into question the regulator's impartiality. It voiced a feeling quietly held in the industry that the regulator had slipped into the role of consumer champion, rather than independent arbiter. The FSA subsequently launched an inquiry into its own practices.

The Financial Times's Lombard column summed up much of press sentiment when it labelled L&G 'the winner on points' in what should arguably have been a no-score draw.

Given its tricky role, it is possible that the FSA was always going to put noses out of joint and attract criticism from powerful vested interests.

Few journalists will talk openly about how the episode has damaged the FSA. But some believe the regulator is too eager to show that it is doing its job without considering the PR implications.

'The FSA press release must have been drafted at the highest level,' says one senior business journalist. 'FSA officials hide behind the press office, and I can't remember the last time (FSA chief executive) John Tiner or even a mid-ranking FSA official gave an on-the-record interview.'

Most journalists and financial services PROs, however, praise the FSA's remodeled press office under head of media and web communications Rob McIvor and his boss FSA director of people and comms Vernon Everitt.

The Guardian's Jobs & Money editor Patrick Collinson says that part of the FSA's problem may simply be that it has fewer resources to draw on than large financial services companies such as L&G.

Collinson thinks it is a 'good thing' that the FSA has become 'much more consumer focused'.

But others believe that in its desire to be seen to be standing up for consumers' rights, the regulator is ignoring a bias emerging in its procedures and missing an opportunity to speak for the industry as a whole.

'The FSA has been very effective as a regulator, even though it is not always as direct and clear as it might be,' says one high-level financial services PRO. 'We sometimes expect the FSA to take a lead on where the industry should be going, but more often its profile is shaped by the penalty fines or rulings that it imposes.

There is a vacuum for the FSA to fill.'

But to do that, the FSA will have to avoid alienating an equally powerful consumer lobby. Pressure groups want the FSA to promote itself as a conduit for disgruntled financial services customers that will identify new kinds of malpractice and bad behaviour.

Which? head of campaigns Louise Barlow claims it was her organisation that got the FSA interested in problems with split capital investment trusts (investment companies listed on the stock exchange which themselves invest in stocks, shares and bonds).

She argues that while the regulator sports a highly effective website, it has not made itself relevant to the public, whose interests it is partly supposed to protect.

'I don't know whether they have done a brand awareness test or whether they understand that side of their role,' says Barlow. 'A lot of people only find out about an organisation like the FSA or the ombudsman when things go wrong.'

Agreeing a strategy

At the FSA, McIvor insists that whichever PR agency is called in, it will act as nothing more than a 'sounding board' on a range of issues from the FSA's reputation to communicating how the FSA will implement the European Union's financial services and financial markets directives.

Most of the FSA's comms strategy, he says, can be understood through the business plan outlined by FSA chairman Callum McCarthy. This is set out as 'securing orderly markets, helping to create a healthy environment in which financial services can flourish and creating and easier organisation for businesses to work with.'

A business-friendly sounding message, but if the FSA is to walk the tightrope between the needs of customers and the financial services industry it wants to reform, a diplomatic approach will be needed.

GROWING RESPONSIBILITIES

- 1997 The Chancellor of the Exchequer announces reform of financial services regulation.

The Securities and Investments Board becomes the Financial Services Authority.

- 1998 The Bank of England's banking supervision responsibilities are transferred to the FSA.

- 2000 Financial Services and Markets Act gets Royal Assent.

- 2001 The FSA takes on regulation for sectors formerly policed by the Building Societies Commission, the Friendly Societies Commission, the Investment Management Regulatory Organisation, the Personal Investment Authority, the Register of Friendly Societies and the Securities and Futures Authority.

- 2004 The FSA takes over the regulation of general (no-life) insurance, mortgage selling and mortgage advice.

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