Anthony Hilton: 'Tis the season to be seen as boring

It is the public mantra of most bankers that they want, once again, to be seen as boring.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army is a far more comfortable figure than the high-rolling, hard-driving Sir Fred Goodwin.

Interestingly, it is not just bankers who are now uncomfortable with life at the sharp end. A survey published by the insurers Royal Sun Alliance earlier this year showed risk-taking had been devalued, even within the business community. While 72 per cent of executives agreed business had to take risks in order to grow and prosper, 63 per cent thought there had been altogether too much risk-taking in recent times.

The reaction to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent financial crisis has had a profound impact. Fully two-thirds of companies believe the risk aversion and conservatism that have come to the fore as companies batten down the hatches will lead to missed opportunities and lost markets. But they do not seem that bothered about it - or not bothered enough to change their ways. Indeed, only half of those polled claim still to admire risk takers; and among consumers, only one-third think entrepreneurs should be well rewarded.

The perception of risk takers has changed. Whereas pre-crash the risk taker was a Richard Branson or James Dyson, today's risk taker is an anonymous trader in a bank who gambles in complex derivatives on a scale that puts the global economy in jeopardy. So risk-taking and risk takers have been severely devalued.

From the standpoint of the economy and chances of a swift recovery, this is bad news, because we need genuine risk takers to make capitalism work. The more we retreat into the world of spreadsheets and cautious accounting, the more the wheels of capitalism will clog up as they did in the 1970s.

But for PR it presents a challenge too, because clearly the public wants its business to be low risk. Positioning a company as safe and stolid, and not one to bring the house down, will become an integral part of CSR programmes. Welcome to the world of PR as boring.

- Anthony Hilton is City commentator on the London Evening Standard

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