Client view: Amanda Brown, First Direct - Beyond the phone

First Direct's innovative digital comms strategy takes its customer experience into new realms. Lynsey Barber talks to the bank's head of PR about crowd-sourcing, coverage and compliance.

Turning 21 is special. When First Direct celebrated the milestone last year, the occasion offered the bank an opportunity to reflect on its heritage.

The facts speak for themselves - 1.16 million customers, numerous awards for customer service and a reputation as the most recommended bank in the UK. Amanda Brown, PR manager, believes a single word has been key: 'We looked at why we were created, and at the centre of that was the word customer. Not financial products. The customer was at the heart of everything we've done.'

First Direct has never strayed far from this ethos. When it began developing its digital comms, which have expanded to include a social media newsroom, Facebook, Twitter and its crowd-sourcing enterprise, the Lab, it was no different. 'Five or six years ago, it was suggested by one of our CEOs that we should have a blog. Everyone was starting a blog, so we thought, "Can we do something slightly different?"'

This thinking led to the creation of the Little Black Book, where customers share recommendations. It is a valuable offering to customers, one in four of whom joins First Direct based on a recommendation. 'It's about using innovation intuitively, so it always benefits the customer,' says Brown.

Circle of communication

A telephone-only bank when it began, First Direct has worked hard at communicating with customers from the outset. 'We've always communicated in a non-physical way. It's an art and you have to learn that art to do it well,' Brown explains.

First Direct introduced internet banking in 1997 and SMS text banking in 1999. 'It's talking to customers in an environment where they are choosing to communicate,' she explains.

Almost half of First Direct's sales come from e-channels and more than 85 per cent of customer contact happens electronically. 'You can't not be there,' she adds.

Through the Lab, the bank crowd-sources the development of its products and services and customers are invited to share their thoughts on the redesign of the website and debit card, and how they feel about the use of QR codes within First Direct's comms.

'Customers vote with their feet, so you have to create product services with the customer in mind. How do you do that unless you get the customer's voice?' Brown says. It has become a valuable tool internally to hear the bad and the good, as well as an interesting tool to benchmark what is being said against research and focus groups.

Digital activity has also been invaluable for reaching journalists and increasing coverage. The social media newsroom incorporates archives of press releases, YouTube content, tweets and RSS feeds.

'It's a circle of communication. You want people to find you everywhere. It's joining up the dots of your communication in the digital environment. It's like when people said internet banking would never take off - it's working out how to use it appropriately and to your best advantage,' says Brown.

Joined-up coverage

So when First Direct celebrated its significant birthday last year, this joined-up digital coverage led to the bank topping Google searches for the term 'future of banking'. 'Not everyone recognises us, and we have to work hard to get into all aspects of people's lives. Digital is a valuable space to be in.'

There was full support for the strategy within the business. 'Mark Mullen, head of marketing at the time and now chief executive, could see that it was just an expansion of our comms into a digital space,' says Brown.

The concept has been so successful that parent company HSBC adopted the same platform for its personal and business banking arms in September. 'Mark Hemingway (head of UK media relations at HSBC) was very supportive and could see that it was something they needed to have,' she says.

Despite a lack of measurement for social media engagement, Brown is happy with the results, working out the value of its activity as it develops. 'We can tell how influential a financial blog is and compare it with print. We can determine where video content has been seeded. We can see who retweets us and their influence,' she says. 'And a tweet costs nothing to put out.'

Control and compliance

In the highly regulated world of financial services, compliance is an additional obstacle to overcome. It has provided a definitive clarification between marketing and PR activity. 'We've set the boundaries now - if you take it in everyday traditional terms it becomes quite apparent where one starts and the other stops,' says Brown.

First Direct's Facebook presence is run by the marketing team, and although the decision was made for it not to be product-led, any marketing activity is bound by strict guidelines. Content creation is initiated two weeks in advance to make sure regulations are adhered to. 'Any Facebook messages go through advertising control, then compliance. There's a lot of viewing and regulation going on in the background in the same way as a printed piece of marketing. It's the same communication, just through a different platform,' she says.

Twitter is purely a PR tool aimed at journalists. Before setting up an account,Brown discussed it with both advertising and compliance departments. 'A tweet can say lowest mortgage on the market, but that's a marketing message, even though it's PR,' she explains. Press releases are clearly highlighted as such and links go back to the newsroom, where it is stated as for use by journalists rather than consumers.

Marketing and PR may meet in the digital realm but the areas are clearly differentiated at the point of distribution.

Brown says: 'If we make a comment on Facebook about mortgages, I'll be putting out a press release at the same time. People in social channels will pick up on the Facebook message, and people in media channels will pick up on the press release. The two exist together, not obviously as marketing and communications, but we have to abide by the rules within which we have always conducted our messaging.'

Despite the majority of people disapproving of banks being on Facebook (see left), the positive response to First Direct's presence seems to be because it is so different from other banks.

However, Brown admits: 'I don't know everything and I'm learning. When I put something out now, it is just part of that distribution. Digital has really become business as usual.' 


Brown's priority for digital comms is getting comment out quickly and giving First Direct more of a voice on wider banking issues, not necessarily just regulatory ones.

'We'd like it to be more dynamic. We use the newsroom to push information and we are not necessarily creating opportunities to say things. I want to use it as a tool for that.'

Brown says she would also like to create more video content as part of this: 'It would also be great to become more visual in the work we do. At the moment, we are thinking about offset mortgages. People are finding it difficult to work out how it might benefit them. We are asking ourselves if there is an infographic we can create that people can play with to help them better understand.'

Waiting in the background to go live is 'commenting' functionality in the newsroom. 'As news releases and commentary go up, it'll be interesting to see what comes up. It's all ready to go and just waiting for compliance approval,' she says.



While 80 per cent of Britons online use internet banking, they aren't sure about their banks having a big online presence, with only three per cent approving of banks being on Facebook. In fact, almost two-thirds think that banks just don't belong on Facebook.

Even among 18- to 24-year-olds, 49 per cent do not think that it is 'appropriate' for banks to be there. To engage with social media, curators and the digital space, banks need to prove that they belong within conversations on social media.




"As Amanda remarks, there are issues to overcome when working out what to do with each channel (eg Twitter vs Facebook) and which department owns each (eg marketing vs comms vs customer service). We have to understand the benefits of each comms channel while keeping content and messaging cohesive for our audiences, who do not neatly divide themselves up according to channel."

Heidi Noemm, Country manager UK, Mynewsdesk

"While companies such as First Direct are taking advantage of the ability of social media and technology to communicate in innovative ways, the struggle to measure results is a very real problem. A recent survey by IBM found that 68 per cent of CMOs are not prepared to take advantage of social media and 56 per cent are having a difficult time quantifying ROI for their efforts."

Matt Bostrom, Senior vice-president and director, APCO Worldwide


"As the interview with Amanda Brown of First Direct shows, even digitally switched-on brands aren't getting the most out of their actions through effective evaluation. The bank's activity clearly works for it at the moment, but in what way? Activity up to this point seems more experimental than grounded in commercial reality. For a brand like First Direct, which makes a significant investment in online activity, I'd advise setting specific KPIs upfront that will allow it to methodically evaluate the effectiveness of its actions."

Lawrence Collis, Managing director, Shine Communications.


From PRWeek's Digital thought leader supplement November 2011

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