It will not have escaped your attention that bankers are far from flavour of the month. Since the financial meltdown of October 2008, the narrative that portrays banks as manipulative, venal, reckless and largely responsible for the global economic slump has been compelling to media and public alike.
Regulatory failures, allegations of systematic fraud and gobsmacking bonuses gave the impression of an industry whose stock could sink no lower - until, that is, it was discovered that Barclays (and possibly others) had been manipulating the inter-bank lending rate, Libor.
All in all, this does not appear to be a great time to be handling comms for a financial services provider, but Alan Oliver, head of external affairs at Nationwide, seems pretty happy with life.
Emphasising the difference
For him, the trick during the past few years has been to avoid being tarred with the brush that has painted banks as money-grabbing and untrustworthy. 'We haven't had to change our strategy,' says Oliver in a genial manner. 'All we've ever sought to do is to emphasise the difference.'
The term 'building society' - Nationwide is one - has a slightly homely feel to it. But Nationwide is in fact, as its all-encompassing name suggests, a giant with 15 million customers and £200bn worth of assets. It is also, according to Global Finance magazine, one of the world's 50 safest banks: on the face of it, this is a big anomaly. Oliver smiles. 'We account for half the UK building society market in terms of assets,' he says.
Nationwide was one of the institutions involved in discussions with the then chancellor Alistair Darling as monetary armageddon threatened.
It is a real player but is still not a bank. 'We offer current accounts, we have a treasury function and we clear our own cheques. But we have no shareholders to pay dividends to,' says Oliver.
Nationwide is a mutual entity, which means it must be run for the benefit of its members - savers and investors.
Oliver explains: 'We're not a bank but we do banking. It's a unique comms issue. I don't feel we're lumped in with the banks. We've been successful in making sure the media understood the difference. With mutuality, the member comes first. This means a lot of the culture problems that have beset the banks could not happen at Nationwide. But the industry has been dragged down and there's a danger that means the whole industry. We're not complacent.'
Focus on safety
As the fallout from the banking crisis started to become evident, Nationwide focused on safety with a print and poster campaign, which fanfared: 'Solid. Stable. Dependable. Exciting aren't we?'
Oliver will not comment on whether the travails of Barclays, plus those of NatWest - a recent IT melt-down that left customers unable to access funds - has meant an exodus of customers from them to Nationwide.
Probably well aware that these things can go in cycles, Oliver has no time for schadenfreude. But there have been new customers joining Nationwide. Where from, he will not say, but reading between the lines, it has been a beneficiary of rivals' problems.
Nationwide did not coyly sit back and wait to see whether rivals' customers would switch their accounts. The firm bolstered its advertising presence at the end of July when the Barclays stories appeared, highlighting 'our position and our key messages, in terms of being a mutual and our focus on customer service'.
'We have not sought to occupy the moral high ground,' insists Oliver. 'Judge us by our standards, but we don't claim to be morally superior. We try to have a clear and open dialogue with the media: the term "corporate narrative" is in vogue at the moment but it's a genuine way of engaging and articulating the journey the organisation is on, its drivers, our commitment to mutuality.'
There have been some 'halo slipping' stories, notably when Nationwide closed some branches in London a couple of years ago. Oliver has a theory about this. 'A very high number of journalists have accounts with Nationwide,' he says with a straight face. 'They have built up personal expectations and, for some of them, it's been a disappointment when we have had to operate in a "commercial" manner.'
It is an intriguing defence, and yet Nationwide does seem to come smiling through it all in terms of media relations, regularly scoring highly on measurement of favourable UK coverage combined with number of mentions in the Presswatch financial reports compiled by Kantar Media.
According to Financial Services Authority figures, Nationwide attracts 1.5 per cent of all complaints in the market despite being the second-largest deposit-taker in the UK. There are certainly grumblings: a period of prolonged low interest rates does not sit well with providing an attractive savings and loan proposition, for example. 'We've had to explain and articulate that,' says Oliver. 'But we profit optimise rather than profit maximise.'
Nationwide is an avid user of social media, with a dedicated team of 'two and a half' people handling journalist and customer Twitter accounts, as well as its Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and a dedicated YouTube channel.
'The tone of voice does have to be different,' says Oliver. 'Companies can't control their reputation through social media in the way you can through traditional comms techniques. All of our comms team can tweet and use Facebook, but we try to channel it through the social media team.'
This enthusiasm flies in the face of a recent Pearlfinders report that revealed just six per cent of financial services firms in the second quarter of this year said they intended to invest in social media activity, down from 22 per cent at the end of 2011.
Nationwide has been understandably keen to emphasise its role as the customer's friend. It has pioneered internet banking and interest on current accounts, and it was against charges for using hole-in-the-wall machines and in favour of stamp duty concessions for first-time buyers and greater transparency on credit card bills.
These issues have been at the fore in comms since the financial services sector's reputational difficulties began in October 2008. 'We've always tried to differentiate ourselves through rate,' explains Oliver. 'But that's now much harder in low-interest, recessionary conditions, so we have to find other genuine, compelling ways to say we're different.'
But it is differentiation with a purpose, rather than for its own sake, he insists: 'Why should one care that we're a building society? We explain that we act differently, do things that challenge the banks.'
With bankers' bonuses a hot topic, Nationwide knows it has to tread relatively carefully on pay. 'It's a highly competitive environment,' says Oliver. 'We are recruiting people, typically with experience in financial services, often from larger banking competitors.'
Nationwide is a 'median' payer, he says cautiously, with 'middle-ranking' salaries. 'There is a perception we should be paying significantly less than our major competitors,' he sighs. 'Most of the media are switched on enough to realise the complexity required to run this organisation is equivalent to that of a bank.'
The strength of its balance sheet, its liquidity and the fact that it did not have to receive a government bailout are all in Nationwide's favour. So, it would seem, is its status as a building society, while there is little appetite for demutualisation.
'What would be the incentive for members?' laughs Oliver. 'Everyone needs a bank account but not everyone needs a bank. Who needs another bank?'
COMMS TIMELINE SINCE 2008
'Solid. Stable. Dependable. Exciting aren't we?' campaign launched
External affairs team reshaped with new corporate PR team and a strengthened policy and public affairs group
Journalist-oriented Twitter account (@NationwidePress) launched; social media team set up; YouTube channel launched
September 2011-June 2012
Influenced Treasury banking reform plans to address unintended consequences for large building societies
Launch of customer Twitter account (@askNationwide) and Facebook page (facebook.com/Nationwidebuildingsociety)
There is a consultative Treasury white paper, The Future of Building Societies, into which we need to feed. It's an interesting piece of work. There is the Independent Commission on Banking proposal to separate retail and investment banking. We have always operated in a ring-fenced way. We are also the only building society caught by the bank levy and we are paying into the compensation fund (the Financial Services Compensation Scheme that has helped investors in Bradford & Bingley and the failed Icelandic banks, among others). We fully accept playing our part, but it doesn't seem to be a risk-based approach. We want a level playing field. In terms of media relations, we will continue to explain the underlying differences between us and the banks.
Alan Oliver's piece highlights one of the biggest comms challenges that the financial sector has faced in this regard. The financial crisis, and other high-profile issues since then, have been crises solely of banking.
There are many other parts to the financial sector. Nationwide, and mutuals more widely, are doing a good job of differentiation, but ultimately the wider sector needs to accept that in the eyes of the public they will all be lumped together. It is a huge challenge for any sub-sector to deliver strong, positive comms under such a negative backdrop. Mike Robb Head of corporate comms, Cicero Consulting
Nationwide has emphasised its status as a mutual to create standout from the wider financial services industry, while demonstrating that it offers many of the same products. When it has something to say, it tells the journalists via press release, interested consumers via Twitter and it creates its own content via YouTube or a self-penned article.
It has created a true voice for its brand. Stick to this strategy and over time its in-house-generated collateral builds into a mass that dwarfs all third party coverage combined, leaving it with the last word on the stories it wanted to tell, in its own way. Christian Mahne Director, Vetch Mahne
Nationwide's strategy to emphasise its role as the customer's friend, and not being drawn to take the moral high ground but focusing on what differentiates it from the banks, certainly seems to have paid dividends.
Its openness with stakeholders, steadfastness in relation to its values and refusal to be drawn into judging its peers is to be commended. Kelly Pepworth Head of b2b and corporate PR, Bray Leino.