Anthony Hilton: Aloof CEO harms ambitions of RBS

Global PR firm Burson-Marsteller has done a lot of work over the years to establish and quantify the extent to which the reputation of a company derives from, and depends on, the reputation of its CEO.

Surveys of opinion formers and financial experts down the years have made it clear that at least half of a firm's reputation is derived from the way the world sees its chief executive or chairman – whichever is the dominant personality in the boardroom.

Nothing more clearly explains why it is that RBS – the Royal Bank of Scotland group that is Europe's second-largest banking force and which delivers top-quality financial returns – is nonetheless distinctly second division in terms of share-price performance. The only possible explanation  for the discrepancy is that the market respects RBS boss Sir Fred Goodwin but does not like him.

It is largely his own fault. When he was being introduced to the financial world in a series of private dinners, he came across as diffident, quiet and tough but quite likeable. When subsequently he was pressing the flesh to gain support for his bid for NatWest – in competition with its Edinburgh rival Bank of Scotland –  again he worked hard to establish relationships. But once he had got his prize he became remote and  this was eventually interpreted as arrogance.  The impression gained ground that he saw public relations and the media as a tap.  When he wanted support he would turn it on; when he had achieved what he wanted he would turn it off again.

At the same time, RBS's public relations team has gone through a series of personnel changes and retirements, and the impression – rightly or wrongly – is that there is no one senior enough left to counsel Goodwin to behave differently.

Silly but damaging stories about the group's huge new head office provided a further warning, which was ignored. Then when RBS sought to buy ten per cent of Bank of China it found it could not persuade people to back the strategy and it had to scale back its ambitions to five per cent.

The bank's belated response is to deliver Goodwin up for business page profiles. But until he is willing to accept that public relations is a core part of his job, it may not be enough.

anthony.hilton@haynet.com

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