Royal Bank of Scotland’s Hester No Fool

 Royal Bank of Scotlands Hester No Fool

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the UK government. (Pictured: Royal Bank of Scotland’s Stephen Hester)

Government, it seems, is no match for bankers and executives who run the world’s most powerful financial institutions. The world got another reminder of this on Wednesday when Stephen Hester, Chief Executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, abruptly tendered his resignation. The news might have slammed Hester as another wealthy banker too arrogant to work under government supervision. Instead, Hester left his post like a hero, with lavish praise from the folks who fired him and the admiration of shareholders.

News of his departure sent the stock down, triggered headlines about bereft employee morale, and prompted a Treasury minister to address the UK’s House of Commons with a statement full of hyperbole about Hester’s success at getting the job done.

The reason for the departure? Apparently the government wants to “turn the page” on RBS and divest itself of the business it bailed out. Investors in a privatization deal will not view Hester’s leadership favorably, reckoned the bureaucrats. Instead, so their thinking goes, the market wants to see a leader who represents the future, not the past. Fair enough but for the unanswered questions: Who is Hester’s replacement? And if he’s as good as you say, why show your most capable leader the door? Why not let him help you through the “transition?”

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the UK government for badly mishandling an announcement with a communications strategy that begs many questions.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Before firing, have a replacement lined up, or suffer the consequences. The RBS privatization has a chance to succeed, but the government just raised its cost of capital unnecessarily by showing the current CEO the door, with no apparent plan for replacement. Once the press statements were finalized and the polite, politic resignation letter released, Hester told the truth that he’d wanted to stay after all. While he got to appear as though he’d orchestrated an effective career transition, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne et al were left holding a bag of empty words. Next time, think before you pink slip.

 Royal Bank of Scotlands Hester No FoolPRV Contributor Pen Pendleton is a communications professional with 20 years experience in business and financial public relations. He began his career as a newspaper reporter and now works as a consultant in New York. 

JP Morgan: It May Take Two

 JP Morgan: It May Take Two

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for JP Morgan. (Pictured: JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon.)

Megabank JP Morgan hit the headlines over the weekend with news that it was mobilizing its senior management to defeat a shareholder vote on corporate governance. In advance of a vote at next month’s annual meeting, board members are planning to sit down with some of the bank’s biggest shareholders, encouraging them to block a motion to separate the role of CEO and Chairman.

Momentum for the proposal has gathered steam following the losses from the London Whale trading episode and JPM’s nearly $6 billion in losses. Fairly or unfairly, questions about the CEO have been raised, and whether or not it is possible to manage a firm of JP Morgan’s size. Following some recent ugly congressional hearings, the new catch cry is not only too big to fail abut also too big to manage. This recent suggestion, to split the current Chairman/CEO role into two is an attempt, so say its proponents, to get another set of eyes overseeing day-to-day management.

The Board of JP Morgan isn’t in favor of the change, while press reports have CEO Jamie Dimon being alternatively sanguine about the proposal or threatening to leave, if the motion is approved. To avoid ongoing external scrutiny and to appease fierce critics in Washington and elsewhere, this may be one battle not worth fighting.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for JP Morgan and its decision to oppose suggested governance reforms.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Give an inch to keep a mile. It’s not really clear what JP Morgan’s objections are to splitting the role of CEO and Chairman. It is, after all, a structure that is already in place in many companies around the world, and splitting the roles is generally perceived as a desirable safeguard. For a firm that has been dragged through acres of tough media coverage about its internal management controls, this might have been one relatively painless and not unreasonable concession to make. Another financial loss or management failure around the corner, and JP Morgan may rue the day it so vociferously opposed such a modest reform.

US vs. HSBC: Two PR Punches for the Price of One

 US vs. HSBC: Two PR Punches for the Price of One

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) for the US government.

Everybody likes two bites at the PR cherry, and US prosecutors may have had their way when it comes to the latest fines levied against British banking giant HSBC. The headlines that HSBC was set to pay a record $1.9 billion penalty for ignoring possible money laundering came out on Tuesday. The announcement wasn’t official, but mysteriously there it was, hours before the official drop date.

News this big can’t be kept under wraps for long. HSBC was expected to agree to pay $1.9 billion to settle a probe in connection with money laundering from narcotics traffickers in Mexico. Also alleged was that HSBC intentionally allowed prohibited transactions with Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Burma while facilitating transactions with Cuba. Headline-making stuff.

Tuesday’s papers carried front-page stories with astonishing levels of detail, helpfully provided by the very trusty “people briefed on the matter.” Once the news was out, Wednesday ‘s media coverage gave even more detail. “HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight — and worse — that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars,” read the official government statement on day two. Not unlike statements from the previous day, only this time it wasn’t attributed to someone “briefed on the matter.”

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) to the US government for what seems like a well-orchestrated PR campaign to maximize publicity.

The PR Takeaway: For really big news, use the “Curtain Raiser.” The old PR trick of releasing information the day before the official launch can not only give useful indications of market reactions but, as in this case, allows the headlines to announce the big numbers on day one and stretch the news to a second day by providing more detail. Maximum publicity for the prosecution; as anyone knows, more is better than less.

When “No Comment” Says Too Much

 When No Comment Says Too Much

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Ina Drew and her PR.

What happens to your PR profile when you are held publicly responsible for a headline trading loss of over $6 billion? That must have been the question Ina Drew asked herself as she read her cover story profile in this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine. The former Chief Investment Officer of JP Morgan Chase, who lost the eye-popping number on a sour trade called the “London Whale,” was amusingly headlined “Swallowed by the London Whale.”

The lengthy profile was what one might have expected. The first half was dedicated to tracing Ina’s stellar rise: She was tough, driven, analytical, and well-versed not only in the markets but also internal politics and turf warfare. The second half of the story details how it all unraveled as the losses mounted.

While Drew didn’t comment, plenty of others did. Those more closely connected to the disastrous trade stayed in the background, identifying themselves only as “sources close to the bank.” But Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, went public after the dust started to settle, acknowledging Drew’s “incredible contributions “ to the firm. At this point, couldn’t Drew have said a word or two?

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Ina Drew and her PR strategy. Just one on-the-record quote might have changed the article’s tone.

The PR Takeaway: Silence is not always golden. This profile has it all: money, success, and a colossal fall from grace by the tough trader who, moments prior to resigning, was walking the halls of JP Morgan, pale, gaunt, and with smudged mascara. Despite ongoing and innumerable legal complications, Ina Drew might have served her own PR well by reiterating that while regulators continue to review the matter, she is prohibited from commenting and that she resigned because it was the appropriate thing to do. If  your CEO is publicly positive about your contribution, far better to put yourself in the driver’s seat and acknowledge that you are assisting with inquires and exited with grace, rather than give the impression you have slunk off into the sunset with your tail between your legs.

Was Ina Drew’s silence golden or damning? Give us your PR Verdict!

To read the article click here.

 

Crime and Punishment – and Payment

 Crime and Punishment   and Payment

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for the US Government. (Pictured: Bank fraud whistle blower Brad Birkenfeld)

Who knew that whistle blowing could be so profitable? Bradley Birkenfeld, a former private banker for one of the leading Swiss banks, just landed a cool $104 million as his reward for ratting on his former employer. Big headlines yesterday, but as the news broke, Bradley wasn’t photographed in a glamourous nightspot celebrating his new win. He was in New Hampshire finishing his 40-month jail term in home confinement.

His evidence relating to tax evasion and non-declaration of foreign accounts has netted the US government over $5 billion, but that wasn’t enough to protect him from criminal charges. Prosecutors were unhappy with his previously withholding information about his own clients at the bank, which earned him 40 months in jail.

On the face of it, this seems a perverse result. But under existing legislation the Internal Revenue Service can pay whistleblower awards of up to 30 percent of the collected proceeds. Birkenfeld’s payment is being touted as proof that the US government is committed to rewarding courageous whistle blowers. The PR sting in the message is that ratting on others doesn’t give you immunity; not such a lottery win after all. The US government sent a clear signal that Brad is no angel, yet they’re no welchers.

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for the US Government. Sending mixed signals is sometimes the only way to accomplish goals. Complicated, yes; confusing, no.

The PR Takeaway: Bitter and sweet can live together, even if it seems sometimes counterintuitive. Birkenfeld’s payment sends a clear signal that the government takes the issue of fraud, and reward for whistle blowing, seriously, and is willing to share the upside of newfound gains. Yet Birkenfeld paid a personal price for wrongdoing. Birkenfeld, more than anyone, knows this, as he ponders his newfound fortune – and his ankle brace.

Should government entities send mixed messages of punishment and reward? Should Birkenfeld have received his whistle-blower payment even though he was sentenced? Give us your PR Verdict!

Former Citigroup CEO: “Too Big” Can Fail

 Former Citigroup CEO: Too Big Can Fail

The PR Verdict: “B” (Almost a Winner) for Sandy Weill, who has joined the chorus of concern about the “too big too fail” banking ethic.

So Sandy Weill, Citigroup’s former CEO, is now conceding that what he spent his lifetime proudly building maybe wasn’t such a great idea after all. The former architect of megabank Citigroup stunned the market this week with his observation that banks may be too big to manage. Why not split up investment banking from regular banking, he suggested during an interview on CNBC. Weill revealed a new mantra: bigger may no longer be better.

Quite a volte-face from the man who fought tooth and nail for the repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act, which previously drew a line between commercial and retail banks. Visitors to Weill’s offices when he was at Citigroup could feast their eyes on a proudly-displayed plaque that read, “The Shatterer of Glass Steagall.”  Back then, Weill and his peers credited themselves with creating a brand new banking world.

Why turn back the clock now? As an explanation, Weill’s was masterful in its positioning. Nothing wrong with what he did at the time; it’s just that well, NOW, the situation has changed, Weill explained. This was not an admission of personal responsibility–just that what was once right at the time is “not right anymore.” That was then, this is now.

The PR Verdict: “B” (Almost a Winner) for Sandy Weill, who has now joined the chorus of concern about “too big too fail”. Weill has done a neat (albeit cynical) job of personally shifting from “man in charge” to curious bystander.

The PR Takeaway: Context gives plenty of air cover. By concentrating on the macro, not the micro, Weill has moved into the debate without any personal admissions of failure. This was about what works in the market and nothing to do with his own personal role in the crisis.  Not really a change of heart, more of an update about what the markets are saying.  That makes it so much easier to swap sides and means he can now sit with the cool kids at the school cafeteria.

What’s your opinion of Sandy Weill’s about-face on banking? Give us your PR Verdict!

Barclays CEO Admits He Was Dazzled by Diamond

 Barclays CEO Admits He Was Dazzled by Diamond

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Martin Taylor, former CEO of Barclays.

What to make of the recent mea culpa from Martin Taylor, the former CEO of Barclays? The Financial Times published his opinion piece, provocatively entitled  “I Too Fell for the Diamond Myth,” in which he describes his time as CEO of Barclays during the late 1990s.  Back then, Bob Diamond was running Barclays Capital, the investment banking arm, and reported to Taylor. Judging from the article, we can safely assume they don’t exchange holiday cards.

Taylor gives an insider’s view of boardroom dysfunction and a deliberate effort by traders within Barclays Capital to work around trading limits. The traders exposed the firm to massive risks by window dressing and reclassifying bets to get them past agreed internal controls. This was the late ’90s, after all.

Russia subsequently defaulted, and the markets went into freefall. Describing Barclays’ experience as “worse than most,” Taylor says the “failure to respect the internal control system” precipitated the fire sale of key assets. Traders were dismissed, and Diamond maintained that he had known nothing. Diamond offered to resign, but Taylor, concluding that the business was still in its infancy, said his direct report should stay. Taylor concludes by saying, “I deserve blame for being among the first to succumb to the myth of Diamond’s indispensability.” Ouch!

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Martin Taylor. After more than a decade, he has come clean with some insight. Trouble is, we’re still missing some basic information.

The PR Takeaway: Personal reflection wins people over, but ignoring key questions undoes the gain. If Bob Diamond wasn’t asked to leave, was he at least given a zero bonus for the year? Was anything else done to send home the message that the CEO running the business had bottom line responsibility? Without a full explanation, it’s hard to get past the sneaking suspicion that Taylor’s mea culpa might have been more of an effort to rewrite history than a more profound and insightful contribution.

Is Taylor’s article an explanation, or an excuse? Give us your PR Verdict!