During the banking crisis, I recall asking a very senior banker why his profession did not do more to sell itself. Why, for instance, did no banker come forward to explain the good (yes, really) that bankers do, and instead we had to make do with the spokesperson for their industry association having to fend off relentless questioning?
The fact that this chosen voice was a woman, and not even a banker, did not help. The impression was of a bunch of smooth, powerful blokes skulking in the back, while out front, the poor soul was trying to defend them.
One of the most telling press articles from the period was the one accompanying the infamous assertion from the then Goldman Sachs chief, Lloyd Blankfein, that his investment bank was doing “God’s work”.
It was a throwaway remark, made in jest to the writer who had toured the bank’s premises in an attempt to portray what the people were like who worked there; what life was like inside the giant bank. Naturally, the journalist picked up on Blankfein’s remark, which went viral.
Crucially, though, the piece did not shed any light on what the bankers actually did in terms of assisting their clients. For the initiated, investment banking is not all about trying to stiff the next man, shaft rivals, and the market at the expense of the disadvantaged – although you could be forgiven for supposing so. No clients were quoted, nobody told how they loaned money to this or that company; how they financed a giant, worthwhile project; how they leapt into action to assist a beleaguered corporation or even a cash-strapped state.
None of that was highlighted. Rather, we were treated to a collection of handpicked staffers, each one of whom seemed to tick a box on the “diversity good” chart.
I remember how Goldman reacted with a mix of fury and hurt to “we do God’s work” sparking laughter across the world. It was one of several episodes when it was clear that bankers simply did not know how to help themselves.
I also remember being at a dinner party when a banker shamefacedly admitted what he did for a living. And the claim of Barclays Capital boss, Bob Diamond, that the time for “remorse and apology” by banks for their part in the financial meltdown was over, before the UK government’s response of austerity measures affecting public services had even kicked in.
What provoked theses flashbacks is the finding that public trust in bankers has doubled in the past five years. Two in five Britons now say they trust a banker to tell the truth, according to Ipso MORI’s Veracity Index which measures public faith in different professions. In 2013, just 21 per cent of the country said they trusted bankers; in 2018, it’s 41 per cent.
Cue self-congratulatory slaps on the back from the banks. But, is four out of ten really something to go giddy over?
To be fair, significant advances have been made: more than 80 pieces of legislation passed, to shore up the system and try and prevent a repeat; the introduction of a requirement for banks to hold more capital in reserve; the ring-fencing of domestic retail banking from the more risky investment and international side; and the introduction of stress tests by the Bank of England to examine whether the British sector could weather another huge storm.
Behaviour-wise, there have been some changes. Banks are far more conscious of how they and their employees might appear, so bankers have been told not to flaunt their wealth, not to guzzle champagne in a place where they might be photographed, not to order ludicrously expensive bottles of wine in bars and restaurants, not to drive around in over-the-top cars, and definitely, not to boast of their earnings, especially their bonuses.
Much of that has struck home. The bankers do not so obviously flash their money as they once did.
It only partially addresses the problem, however. It will be interesting to see if the bankers ever climb much higher in the trust table. To do that, they have to show humility and empathy, to be appreciated for the benefit they bring, to be seen to care. To get it.
They must ask themselves what was it about bankers in the past that did not gain them such opprobrium? Why were previous generations respected, at a far higher level than 41 per cent, when this crop is not?
The answer is authenticity. No one doubted that banks in those days used to look out for their customers (provided their monetary affairs were in some sort of order, or at least were salvageable). They offered a genuine retail service. It’s no use, for example, a bank advertising its mighty size and reach, and then making its account holders queue in front of windows with some of the blinds pulled down.
Banks and bankers back then were part of the community. They were embedded among the people they served. They were not distant figures, basking in lavishly appointed buildings, residing in gated palaces. They knew their audiences, shared their fears and concerns, and could relate to ordinary lives.
When they did charity work, they did it with conviction and commitment. Today, with many banks there is still that nagging feeling of tokenism where their corporate social responsibility activities are concerned – it’s simply not authentic.
That, and much more needs to be done. They must not, either, rig the markets, play fast and loose with other people’s money, promise to assist a client in difficulty then pass them on to mates to plunder, missell their products, and engage in schemes to avoid taxes.
It will be a long haul. But provided they strive for authenticity in everything they do, in all their actions, and in all their messaging, with their customers, stakeholders and society, they can get there.
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns, strategic, crisis and reputational, communications advisory firm