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.

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