OPINION: Slipping down the cracks at the Rock

The surprising thing about the public relations disaster that came with bailing out Northern Rock is that anyone should be surprised. The authorities – the Bank of England, the Treasury and the Financial Services Authority – thought they were dealing with a banking problem and acted accordingly.

Hilton: City commentator, London’s <em>Evening Standard</em>
Hilton: City commentator, London’s Evening Standard

But in reality they had a communications problem embracing the changed perception of Northern Rock, public trust in the authorities and customer understanding of events. Their failure to address these issues, and the way they talked about the rescue purely in arcane banking terms made what followed totally predictable – though not to them.

Yet it is not hard to understand why. All the organisations involved have in-house PR staff, but in no case do they sit at the top table where their advice could be woven into policy. Instead their job is to do the best with what is handed to them. It means they spend most of their time peddling out the routine or defending their agency from attack.

As a result their behaviour and loyalties are tribal, so, when things started to go wrong, more effort was devoted to laying the blame on each other than sorting out the mess.

Most organisations would struggle to deliver a non-partisan, co-ordinated message about a complex, emotionally charged subject in secrecy and at very short notice – particularly when they have never had to before. When the Bank of England had to support troubled deposit-takers, it did so in secret. No public statement was ever made. This meant there was no public awareness of what was happening, so there was no need to worry about how the public would react.

This time it was different because policy was formulated by the three organisations. There
was no single communications person with responsibility for the whole package, so it was
no one’s job to realise how different it was.

People have suggested that regulatory policy and supervision slipped down the cracks between the organisations – communications certainly did.

The need for a clear story would be self-evident. The fact that it was not is the most intriguing message from the debacle. We allegedly live in an age of spin, but these organisations showed no understanding of how the public would react.

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus

Latest Articles

Labour hires Obama election strategist David Axelrod to fight General Election

Labour hires Obama election strategist David Axelrod to fight General Election

The man who helped Barack Obama win the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections is to work for Labour along with members of his team.

Sky adds Fever PR to its roster after splitting with Cake

Sky adds Fever PR to its roster after splitting with Cake

Pay-TV giant Sky has added Fever PR to its agency line-up for a wide-ranging brief covering products and services.

Max Clifford trial jury to continue deliberations after Easter break

Max Clifford trial jury to continue deliberations after Easter break

The jury in the trial of celebrity publicist Max Clifford has been sent home for Easter and will reconvene on Tuesday for further deliberations about its verdicts on 11 charges of indecent assault.

Home Office brings in Munro & Forster to campaign against FGM

Home Office brings in Munro & Forster to campaign against FGM

The Home Office has tasked Munro & Forster (M&F) with supporting its campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) as part of a wider retained brief.