Sometimes, things are so badly broken that it’s easier to replace or rebuild them than to attempt a repair. This, I think, is where the reputations or brands of many of our major institutions are today. From banking and big business, to government and the media, the public’s trust in many key institutions has been stretched beyond breaking point.
Of course we’ve had all kinds of shenanigans in high office before. But when the culprits were caught, as they inevitably were, the main actors needed only to lay low, keep their heads down and wait for memories to fade. But I think it’s different this time.
Our faith in banking was in terminal decline before LIBOR became a topic of pub conversations. Some of our politicians struggled to understand why they couldn’t enjoy private ‘country suppers’ with media executives that had corporate agendas to pursue.
The leaders of many of the country’s largest corporations, meanwhile, showed themselves happy to accept inflation-exploding pay awards while preaching pay restraint and cost control to their suppliers and employees. Even some of our most senior policemen, those we trusted to enforce the rules, deemed it acceptable to swap information for a journalist’s cash.
The various parliamentary and judicial inquiries underway or planned, such as the work of Lord Leveson, will eventually report and propose new ways of doing things. They’ll aim to deliver greater transparency and better governance. To get to that point, they attempt to define where and how they think things went so far off the rails.
I suspect that most of the bad decisions that now take pride of place as front-page headlines were borne not of greed or arrogance but from disengagement – a genuine failure by the few to appreciate that what they considered acceptable was not always shared by the many.
But before the rebuilding of trust can begin, the ‘few’ will have to accept that bad decisions were made – both by them and in their names. This means, for example, that Barclays, a bank with tens of thousands of red-blooded, coin-operated bankers already on its payroll, would recognise the benefit of appointing a non-banker as its next chief executive and present such an appointment as a clear signal that it wants the future to be different from the past.
But I think there’s a stronger role for the communications team too.
The best communications strategy for dealing with bad decisions is to not make bad decisions in the first place. Good communications people are generally in tune with the outside world.
With this perspective, and the encouragement to do so, the parties; comms departments can help directors better understand how the decisions made and actions taken in the rarefied atmosphere of the boardroom will be judged in the court of public opinion. But because prevention is preferable to crisis management, the team needs to be part of the decision making process, not subject to it as has been the case so often in the past.
As these institutions look to rebuild their brand credibility and trust with their stakeholders, maybe we’ll finally see more senior communications professionals given seats at the decision-making tables; maybe we’re see more people with backgrounds in PR or journalism given non-executive positions on company boards.
It would be like an insurance policy for corporate and personal reputations, only cheaper.