Neville Hobson

Adding a face to the HSBC name could go a long way

HSBC coverage by the Guardian

Reputation is built on trust and, for HSBC Bank, that chain has been well and truly disconnected through the revelations of alleged dirty deeds in its private banking operation in Switzerland that say the bank helped a large number of its private-banking clients evade tax that have been paraded through the mainstream media over the past week.

Whatever the actual facts of the matter, HSBC is being pilloried left, right and centre as a financial institution that helps wealthy people dodge tax – a very popular topic for politicians in the UK at the moment, with a general election on May 7, 2015 (that’s less than 80 days away).

Not only that, the bank faces criminal charges in the US, France, Belgium and Argentina – although not in the UK – resulting from information revealed by whistleblower Herve Falciani, the former HSBC IT contractor who blew the lid on this scandal (and did that some years ago, according to BusinessWeek and Der Spiegel).

The political angle took centre stage mid week with HMRC, the government department responsible for the collection of taxes, robustly and publicly accused of failing its duty to pursue tax dodgers in this case, and tax avoiders – again, a popular topic for politicians.

As the week wore on and negative commentary intensified, there was little substantive word from HSBC about the issue other than reports on the bank saying that it all related to “unacceptable practices” within its Swiss operation that took place some years ago and which don’t reflect the bank’s way of doing business today.

Many newspapers have been publishing reports and other content that analyse the bank and its business practices that go way beyond this current scandal. Take the Guardian, for example, which has extensive coverage as the image at the top illustrates, all of which undoubtedly leave the reader with the strong feeling that HSBC is a secretive bank not to be trusted (at best), and one that is run by, employs, and does business with, people who behave like crooks (at worst).

The Economist has a good report on cases in recent years focused on data stolen to expose alleged tax evasion, and a candid assessment of HSBC’s current predicament:

The questions for the bank are whether it reacted quickly enough to tighten compliance with tax laws after governments started to investigate in 2010, and how much pain the scandal will cause.

And now the latest development this weekend – HSBC published a public apology in the form of ads in the national press on Sunday signed by Stuart Gulliver, CEO of HSBC Holdings plc, the UK-based holding company.

He says:

We would like to provide some reassurance and state some of the facts that lie behind the stories. The media focus has been on historical events that show the standards to which we operate today were not universally in place in our Swiss operations 8 years ago. We must show we understand that the societies we serve expect more from us. We therefore offer our sincerest apologies.

You can read the complete statement, embedded below:

HSBC Private Bank Announcement Feb 15, 2015

The document refers to another document the bank has published on an HSBC website entitled Progress Update – January 2015, a four-page report on this affair and some detail explaining what the bank has been doing “to prevent its banking services being used to evade taxes or launder money.”

I know nothing of HSBC’s crisis communication plan that surely is well into execution by now, nor the specific public or investor relations objectives of these documents this weekend.

Yet, I cannot see how two rather dry documents like this – PDFs at that: try reading those on your iPhone or BlackBerry – will do anything meaningful to address the assault on the bank’s reputation and the impending collapse of trust.

I’m reminded of the 2015 Trust Barometer published by Edelman last month, one of the findings in which clearly shows one industry sector where trust has declined for another year, even if by only one percentage point over 2014 – banks (page 16 in the report).

I’m also reminded of a point Edelman has made in almost every Trust Barometer since the first report was published fifteen years ago – the negative outcomes distrust in a company can create (and, in contrast, the benefits trust in a company can generate), as this chart illustrates (page 40 in the report).

If you want to really get attention to an apology in a crisis like this – especially one that embroils a company in an industry as reviled as financial services still is – you would want to present a face of humility, humbleness, honesty and authenticity, complemented by assurance, authority and the sense that “I will get things done.”

You may think such attributes come across in both documents. No, they don’t. It means a real face, not PDFs drummed up by the corporate writer which he or she affixes a facsimile of the CEO’s signature to one of them, with the other being wholly anonymous.

I’d like to see a bold move with the CEO on camera delivering the apology along with the plan on what he is doing to fix things, and with a promise to report progress in a similar manner. That means a video, posted on YouTube with open exposure to myriad sharing opportunities across the social web.

HSBC has a YouTube channel.

Even though the 2015 Trust Barometer shows yet again that CEOs generally are not trusted voices for a corporation (page 20 in the report), it’s a lot better than a sterile PDF.

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