Fixing the Roof While the Sun is Shining: Lessons from the Bank of England
Our team was recently joined by Mike Peacock, former Executive Director of Communications at the Bank of England (BoE), as part of a Lunch and Learn session at Prosek’s London office.
Most notably, Peacock’s work at the BoE included navigating the lead-up to-and the fallout from-the Brexit vote, during which the Bank’s Governor, Mark Carney, was accused by “leave” campaigners of supporting the other side, criticism that continued even after the British public voted to drop out of the EU. Before his time at the BoE, Mike spent 25 years at Reuters, which included stints as Chief UK Political Correspondent for most of the Tony Blair era and EMEA Politics and Economics Editor during the global financial crisis and following Euro-zone debt crisis.
Peacock provided fascinating insight into life at one of the world’s oldest and most important financial institutions, and unsurprisingly, the scale of the Bank’s communications operation is enormous. “We would often receive 20, 30, 40 media enquiries a day. Our days would generally start with a morning call with the Governor or other senior employees, where we would discuss what people were saying about us.” He continued, “We came under scrutiny for anything and everything, because of the importance of the institution. This meant that every day was different in terms of what was being dealt with.”
With this experience, Peacock became an expert in navigating a crisis. He emphasized the importance of proactive, rather than reactive, communications to avert crises before they arise.
Peacock’s time at The Bank of England coincided with rising public sentiment that all central banks would face increasingly challenging operating environments. It became clear, he said, that it was crucial for the BoE to clearly and confidently articulate its value to get ahead of the opposition and potential headwinds.
“Even pre-Brexit, Mark [Carney] thought there was a pushback coming for the BoE, as we were seeing with other central banks. They had been the key policy institutions during the financial crisis, even more so than governments, yet they weren’t elected. Critics said they weren’t particularly accountable,” Peacock explained. “There was already some pushback in some parts of the world, where central banks were being reined in and their legitimacy questioned… you must build a much greater public understanding about what they do and what they’re about.”
Under global pressure, Bank leadership pushed for a communications strategy that aimed to enhance public perception about the BoE’s place and purpose. To increase accessibility, the Bank strategized to promote a level of access and transparency that was far from commonplace, hoping that the result would create an institution that consumers felt was not only familiar, but valuable.
The financial services industry is notoriously opaque, and as many institutions attempt to lift the veil of secrecy, Peacock’s experience offers a possible path towards success.
Critics of this industry paradigm shift often posit increases in transparency as unnecessary – for if organizations are delivering returns for clients, why does anything else matter? Put simply, because public trust matters.
Opening doors increases accountability in several senses, inviting both supporters and critics inside. You need to be ready in a new way to approach negative press, increased policymaker interest and challenging questions from investors. It takes a very strategic, deeply integrated communications strategy to increase transparency while enhancing perception. However, when executed correctly, the results can be game-changing.
So, what does this look like in practise?
Identify Clear Objectives: What problems are you trying to solve? What issues do you want to get ahead of? And what do you want to be known for? Good communications shouldn’t take place in a silo and, at its core, should be about preventing and solving business problems.
Speak the Language of Your Audience: Don’t make the mistake of trying to speak to everyone or too many groups at once. You must be laser-focused, and once you know whom you want to reach, you need to be clear on the value your organisation brings to them. What sets it apart from its competitors? Why should investors put their money into your business over others? Why should the best talent work for you? This should all be brought to bear as part of a clear and comprehensive communications strategy that a range of stakeholders, not just communications personnel, have shaped.
Lean on the Good: Any strategy should include making the most of the good moments and news; this might be a new senior hire, a report or a piece of thought leadership, a strong set of financial results or the launch of a new strategy. These moments matter – they’re golden opportunities to shape your story and your audience’s perception of your organisation.
Relationships Matter: Perhaps most crucially, to create successful communications strategies, building effective relationships with opinion shapers, be they journalists, analysts, or policymakers, is essential. You need friends to call on when the going gets tough. This is especially important for those stakeholders you don’t always agree with. Success does not mean changing everyone’s mind – but often, criticism stems from a lack of understanding, and the only way to solve that is through leveraging dynamic, intelligent communications.
In summary, and as Peacock learned from his time at the Bank of England, you must write your own story, or others will write it for you. This means getting ahead of issues and threats, having a clear, proactive communications strategy in place, building strong and constructive relationships with your stakeholders and ultimately, fixing the roof while the sun is shining.