I was rather taken aback this morning when, tuning in to the Today programme after 7 O’Clock, I didn’t hear the boss of Lloyds Banking Group talking about the group’s financial results. I thought we had entered a new age of banking communications – a time when banks were happy to engage and answer awkward questions about pay, bonuses, losses, mis-selling and generally trying to clean up their image.
It’s not so long ago (during my time on the Today programme) that banks almost always refused to do that. Why should they do anything else? They were rolling in money, their shareholders were happy, they were earning phone number style salaries and bonuses and we – their customers – were all perceived to be doing pretty well by them.
Now things are very different. The banks are under new management and new ownership (some of it ours) and, in the main, they realise the need to adopt a new, conciliatory language to placate stakeholders and customers and help repair damaged reputations.
RBS and Barclays seem to get it. Listen to Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins being interviewed by Evan Davis on the Today programme recently after the bank announced the results of a strategic review. This was an interview so open and frank in its delivery that even Evan Davis admitted afterwards that he had, at one point, been stumped. Or RBS CEO Stephen Hester on the same programme yesterday (28th Feb 2013) after the company unveiled a loss of £5.2bn. RBS, in fact, went even further yesterday when the Chairman Sir Philip Hampton appeared on BBC radio 5-live to answer listener’s questions directly.
Even the incoming Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has spoken of a new era of openness. Nevertheless this morning Lloyds Banking Group chose to maintain radio silence (my sources at the BBC tell me Lloyds declined all interview requests).
Lloyds is by far the biggest customer facing of the banks here having 30 million customers with 22 million current accounts and 21 million savings accounts. An interview this morning would have given Lloyds an opportunity to try to build bridges with its customers – in particular those to whom it’s now paying £6.8 billion in compensation over PPI mis-selling.
As I’ve said the radio silence took me aback. And I am not alone. One senior BBC insider told me “The question that companies like Lloyds have to think about is whether they’ll now stand out in customers’ minds – in a bad way – by not doing interviews. In the past we very rarely heard from bank CEOs but now the likes of Barclays and RBS make their top people available quite routinely. And people are demanding more accountability, I think. They know that taxpayers own big chunks of a few of the banks, and I think that means that, for banks, keeping your head down is a much riskier option.”
Still, head down with tin hat on is where Lloyds decided to remain.
As a journalist covering business and economics on the Today programme for 11+ years one got used to the fact that when bad news surrounded a company the answer to the interview request was almost always “no.” There were a few notable exceptions; Justin King when he took over at Sainsbury’s is a very good example. And now in the horse meat scandal even Tesco boss Philip Clarke has bitten the bullet and given interviews. The supermarkets are businesses that rely on their reputation and the trust of their customers. Positive, proactive and timely PR can help in the process of cementing that. Perhaps in the new world of banking there are lessons to be learned in the City from the experience of those on the High Street?