Bernard O’Riordan, Media Trainer
It’s no secret that Australia’s big banks and wealth managers have suffered serious reputational damage this year at the Hayne Royal Commission.
The explosive revelations of deceit, lies and fraud that emerged over recent months has shredded share prices and ruined the reputations of some of the country’s most respected institutions and their top executives.
But it was outside the Commission’s hearing rooms where much of the reputational damage was done. And it could so easily have been avoided.
Despite the storm of public outrage, many high-flying, highly-paid bankers dodged the cameras, avoided the hard questions and were seen to be running scared.
This was hardly the textbook crisis response we expect from highly-skilled executives and directors whose organisations spend vast sums on media, reputation and crisis coaching every year.
It seems as though the media playbook went out the window as rattled executives from the Commonwealth Bank, NAB and AMP – as well as the corporate regulator ASIC - took flight rather than show remorse for the failings that occurred on their watch.
The exception was perhaps Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer, who despite suggestions of appearing flippant inside the Commission, gave his peers a lesson in how to manage the media outside the hearings.
He calmly took a moment to address the waiting media, and gave a simple response that satisfied their needs. Then he was gone.
But they weren't all so cool in a crisis.
It was embarrassing to watch the chair of the Commonwealth Bank, Catherine Livingstone, being pursued through city streets by the media pack without uttering one word of regret or even acknowledging their presence.
CBA’s chief executive, Matt Comyn, also chose to take flight rather than using the opportunity to defend the reputation of the 106-year-old bank or provide some reassurance to the bank’s 800,000-odd shareholders, 52,000 employees and its long-suffering customers.
Even NAB chairman, the former treasury secretary Ken Henry, proved to be out of touch with the media. His evidence at the Commission was so long-winded it sounded like a university lecture, but he looked like a deer in the headlights outside as he dodged the media.
Avoiding the media, being evasive and choosing to run rather than address some very real concerns is the last thing our big banks executives can afford to do at a time when the industry needs to rebuild trust and transparency.
Even if they were advised by their legal counsel not to talk to the media, this is the one time they needed to consider if that was really in their best interests.
Considering the massive war rooms the banks had with teams of in-house and external lawyers overseeing proceedings, that might be easier said than done.
But it’s important to remember that a reputational crisis is emotional, not logical. So executives should have been prepped to focus (outside the hearings anyway) on what their customers or employees were feeling and needed to hear, rather than blindly following cold, hard legal advice.
A simple message about how the hearing went or the lessons learned was all that was needed.
By saying nothing, many of these banking executives looked uncaring and out of touch, or as 2GB's business commentator Ross Greenwood put it, looking "like a common criminal".
Mastering leadership in a crisis with dozens of cameras in your face is never easy. But when the media expect answers, you can either take control or you can be controlled.
With the Commission’s final report due out in February, many of the country’s senior bankers will no doubt spend the festive season thinking about how they might have done things differently.
That includes being more responsive to the media when things go pear-shaped.
How To React In The Media Spotlight During A Crisis:
> Clear, open lines of communication with the media are vital, especially in a crisis. It’s your chance to show you or your organisation cares, is contrite and is committed to rebuilding trust. Provide some assurance that you are doing everything you can to rebuild trust or resolve a problem.
> Despite what your lawyers might say, acknowledging a situation is the only way to manage outrage and it’s unlikely to create a legal liability when done right. You don’t have to admit fault or wrongdoing, it's about showing you really do care;
> Before fronting a major hearing, court case or a tribunal, understand why it’s newsworthy and ensure that you have something strategic to say to waiting reporters. No comment doesn't work, neither does ignoring the media;
> Work with your in-house corporate communications and legal teams to hone your media message and seek expert crisis and media coaching from an independent external firm that can provide robust, objective feedback.
> You can’t afford to bear a grudge in ongoing dealings with the media, even after serious ongoing criticism. It’s a lesson AMP might do well to consider. It is rarely personal and the most important thing is to rebuild your organisation's public image. The media is not your friend, but they're not the enemy either, unless you choose to be combative.
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