But where does the PR profession fit into all this? Are top PROs part of this establishment – and next in line for a scandal? Or can they be part of the solution?
The role of comms professionals in the reputation crisis presently facing the banking sector is not yet clear.
It is largely accepted that the attitude of the big banks pre-Lehman Brothers’ collapse was one of complacency and arrogance, which led in part to their downfall. But I have written here before that even post-credit crunch there has been little evidence that the banks have become any more humble or transparent.
Indeed there is now a widespread consensus – even by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Tuesday morning – that the culture of some British banks is rotten to the core.
This may seem harsh, but it is a perception formed from a series of ethical misjudgements: from the generally cavalier lending policies pre-2008, to HSBC’s mis-selling of financial products to pensioners, to Barclays Capital’s artificial manipulation of the Libor rate.
And yet some very experienced comms professionals have sat high within these firms. Former FT editor Andrew Gowers was head of comms for Lehman Brothers two years prior to its collapse. Howell James, the highly respected former director of government comms, has been vice-chairman of corporate affairs at Barclays for four years, working closely with the bank’s board.
The theory goes that employing such senior communicators should make businesses more outward-looking, accountable and ultimately more ethical. But it clearly hasn’t happened. So either these comms executives haven’t been performing this role effectively, or they do not yet have adequate influence.
One suspects it is the latter, preferring to believe these top PR men are advising corporate leaders to ‘do the right thing’ for the benefit of their long-term reputations in what, after all, is the age of transparency.
However, with power comes responsibility. And if these comms executives do gain such influence, with concomitant financial reward, they should expect the same levels of scrutiny now applied to other leaders.
It is a great opportunity for the profession but the stakes have become frighteningly high.