Banks need a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future. ASAP.

Mr. Potter, The banker from "It's a wonderful life".

Mr. Potter, the banker from “It’s a wonderful life” (1946).

When I picture the CEO of a bank, I can’t help but come up with an image like the one featured in this post. An arrogant, selfish, ruthless older gentleman who is a mix between the mean old men who tormented Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins” and Pre-Christmas-Ghosts-Scrooge. I know this idea is pretty far from the truth, but I’m not sure that everybody else does.

For the fifth year running, the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer has proven that banks (and bankers) are the least trusted institutions, especially in the US and the UK. There’s an obvious link between these results and the current worldwide financial crisis, but what’s surprising is that the public’s mistrust is strongest in two countries where:

a) The financial situation is not as bad as in other countries (i.e. Greece or Spain).

b) Public Relations is valued and practiced extensively and efficiently.

Does this mean that banks aren’t taking notice of these (yearly) results? Or do they just not care?

It would be reasonable to think that financial institutions would be at the forefront of PR best practice, given that they deal with sensitive issues that affect many people and that they operate in a sphere where the dubious actions of one can easily affect the reputation of others. However, the data indicates that this is probably not the case. This is not to say that banks don’t have PR teams telling them that in order to build trust they should put their publics ahead of profits, communicate with them frequently and honestly and be as transparent as possible about their business. Instead, it might reasonable to ask: How many banks have PR managers present in their boardrooms and how many take their suggestions to heart? In light of the results, we must assume that the answer is “not many”.

According to Edelman, the public doesn’t trust banks because of their corporate culture and their alleged corruption. Two matters which are linked to reputation management and could therefore be addressed through PR. By abandoning the propaganda model that has characterized financial PR until now, and adopting a model of two-way communication (as defended by Grunig), banks might be able to change course and shed their negative image. In other words, they should stop talking at their publics and start talking to them.

We don’t need a visit from a ghost to help us envision the future of banking if things don’t change.

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