Danny Rogers: Barclays' best hope is its adept comms team

 

Barclays is undergoing arguably the biggest reputational challenge in its 300-year history.

This is worse than students boycotting the bank for links to apartheid in the 1980s or the excessive bonuses that followed the credit crunch. This is the worst PR crisis facing a company since BP polluted the Gulf of Mexico two years ago.

Fines for fixing the Libor rate led to the resignation of chief executive Bob Diamond, a slump in the bank's share price and a downgrading of its credit rating to "negative". The bank's communications team knows it faces a steep climb back to respectability.

The good news for Barclays – and we're struggling here – is that it now has access to some formidable PR talent. Its vice-chairman of corporate affairs is Howell James, the hugely experienced and well-networked former head of government communications. Stephen Doherty joined last week, from the much-admired Diageo, to be head of corporate communications. And the bank has just hired hot PR agency Portland, led by former Tony Blair adviser Tim Allan.

This team will aim to ring-fence the corruption at Barclays Capital to avoid further infecting the high-street bank's image, identify other skeletons about to fall out of closets, and promote the good things Barclays does in the community. The sponsorship of the English Premier League may throw up opportunities.

Why didn't Barclays do this before? Just as at BP, the chief executive lacked humility and an instinct for transparency. Insiders tell me the recent Financial Services Authority inquiry was handled foremost by lawyers, with comms professionals pushed to one side. If Barclays is to salvage its brand, this has to be reversed. James and his team must be given voice at board-level and create an open, ethical culture. It won't be easy because one suspects they'll have to penetrate a labyrinth of complex banking practices and persistent pockets of arrogance.

Danny Rogers is editor of PR Week.

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