Friday’s Guardian article looking at the role of PR in the wake of Barclays’ rate fixing scandal is off-track on several counts …

At the outset, it depicts Barclays as the latest “victim of a crisis cycle that has seen corporate reputations shredded by hostile political, regulatory and media scrutiny.”

Barclays as a “victim” of the world’s scrutiny of it? I think not. The company is reeling from its own misdealings, whether these are ultimately found to stem just from 14 rogue dealers or the bank’s entire management.

The Guardian goes on to say that, following such crises, companies are “rightly questioning the value of a £7.5bn-a-year industry that is supposed to protect their reputations: public relations”. This is a strange claim for three reasons.

Firstly, if companies are doing this, they may well be placing primary focus on the wrong thing. It always stuns me when people term a company’s dodgy behaviour, when exposed, as “bad PR”.  The root problem is usually its fundamental actions, not its communications. In Barclays’ case, the FSA didn’t impose a £290 million fine for poor communications. Rate fixing was the problem and it wasn’t its PR team who did it.

Secondly, I fully agree PR advisors should help “protect reputations” – by communicating actively and honestly, fostering trust and goodwill in good times and handling the fall-out when things go awry. But if companies ever believe their PR can provide a magical smokescreen to cover up their badness, they’re deluded and corrupt.

Thirdly, what is this so-called “PR industry” any way? It makes it sound like a large body on which companies are helplessly dependent, rather as we try to rely on the NHS to keep us well. Far from it: each organisation creates its own communications arrangements: whether good or bad, it’s responsible for its own PR.

The Guardian is right on two points, though:

1. The recent string of crises is the latest reminder of what firms should already know – that their reputations form a vital part of their corporate value. Barclays has lost a fifth of its market price.

Organisations of all sizes need to take this on board in good times, not just when disaster strikes. If you leave it that late, only so much can be done to mitigate the damage.

2. Communications during a crisis bizarrely often serve only to make matters worse. Frequently, absence of preparation and lack of skill are to blame.

BP provides the classic example in recent corporate history. Five million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico was the first catastrophe. BP’s reaction to it was the second – as far as the company’s reputation and Tony Hayward’s career were concerned.

When this kind of thing happens, there can be a knee-jerk tendency to lay the blame at the door of the PR staff involved. Sometimes this is warranted, sometimes not.

My guess in BP’s case is a lack of communications support was not to blame. At such a time, the oil giant would surely have brought in the best people possible. But a loose cannon chief exec under pressure can say stupid things, no matter how good the advice. No-one would have recommended he should declare: “I’d like my life back.”

The harsh reality is that disasters are not reserved for the Barclays and BPs of this world: they can hit every organisation, whatever its size. Simply hoping to be lucky enough to escape any trouble is sticking your head in the sand.

The best formula to survive and bounce back is: strong communications at all times; decisive action to fix  problems when they arise; a robust, intelligent crisis communications capability; plus articulate business leaders who’ll take on board advice.

Barclays has made big mistakes, has been caught on the hop and should be handling the fall-out more effectively. What happens next and the impact on its long-term reputation remain to be seen.


What’s your view on how Barclays has played this?  And how communications should be structured to help organisations survive disaster?