Staying ahead of the curve: bank messaging during the pandemic

Banks were quick to respond to the Covid-19 crisis and have tried hard to stay ahead of the news ever since, writes James Brockdorff, Assistant Account Executive at Moorgate-Finn Partners.


It didn’t take banks long to realise the unprecedented threat of the coronavirus pandemic, nor the fact that such a threat required a decisive response. While not on the immediate frontline of the public health crisis, banks understood that the drastic actions being undertaken by governments in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus would have a deep impact on them as vital conduits of finance. Consequently, their messaging would carry significant weight.

So far, banks have understandably followed discernible messaging paths. This started with practical considerations about the impact on operations, followed by measures taken to support the “lockdown” economy. Then came an analysis of the wider macroeconomic situation. And finally the impact on the banks’ own finances.

Bank integrity takes centre stage

As the crisis exploded in early March, protecting staff became a critical primary responsibility for all major banks. HSBC announced the evacuation of several floors of its Canary Wharf head office in London, after an analyst tested positive. Lloyds Banking Group quickly followed, with early communications focusing on the closure of a number of UK offices as staff members also contracted the virus. As banks triggered work-from-home contingency plans, they remained focused on their status as an essential service, with messaging designed to reassure customers of unaffected operations and the continued integrity of IT systems.

Visits to branches and offices became discouraged. Yet phone lines and online infrastructure often struggled to cope with the demand for assistance – with some banks asking clients to bear with them while they experienced longer-than-usual waiting times. Société Générale committed to offering SMEs and professional clients a response about their financing needs in under 48 hours, while Commerzbank promised to dramatically cut bureaucratic processes to get help to clients as soon as possible, as did UniCredit.  

Then came the support

Then came the government’s support packages. Details of the financial support on offer – especially for individuals and SMEs – became the focus of communications, with many banks anxious to demonstrate they were more than just a conduit for government initiatives. They were keen to play a leading role in the crisis for their customers, although media noise of “repaying the favour from 2008” failed to gain much meaningful traction.

Early on, NatWest prepared a two-page guide on how businesses might take steps to protect themselves. The guide, distributed to clients, included standard advice from Public Health England as well as practical guidance on preparing a business continuity plan. Perhaps reflecting their major corporate and financial institution client base, BNY Mellon on the other hand asked clients to share their business continuity plans, pledging to work around their new requirements. Dedicated coronavirus microsites soon became a feature on the homepage of most banks.

Making much of “relationship banking”

Banks waste few opportunities to talk about relationship and partnership. And, predictably, this became a key feature of banks’ communications from early-on in the crisis. BNP Paribas considered the pandemic no less than “a moment of truth in our relationship with our clients and the world around us”.

In practical terms, this has meant overdraft extensions and loan repayment holidays – Credit Agricole and Royal Bank of Canada being two early examples of what became one of the most widespread forms of relief.  Meanwhile, Wells Fargo reported enormous demand for the bank’s small business loans related to the U.S. government-backed Paycheck Protection Program – so much so that the Federal Reserve had to ease restrictions on lending volumes.

Yet the looming economic impact of the crisis was already becoming a focus, with many banks issuing statements to reassure stakeholders of their ability to withstand the crisis.  Deutsche Bank, for example, communicated in March with all staff in the form of an internal letter from CEO Christian Sewing. Later released, the messaging was aimed at reassuring employees that the bank is well prepared and supported by strong credit quality and high liquidity.

Soaring unemployment is becoming one of the unfortunate standout features of the pandemic’s fallout. Here too, banks have been eager to demonstrate their willingness to support local communities, often by cancelling layoffs, as seen at Bank of America. In Spain, Santander called off planned redundancies.

At the heart of all intiatives – and indeed as the central theme of all their coronavirus communications – banks have sought to communicate empathy and understanding, together with a willingness to step up and support those most in need. So far, this have worked, and they have escaped the broad condemnations prevalent in 2008. As the crisis drags on, this may yet be severely tested.

Saving banks (from themselves)

When it comes to banks and crises, it’s not a question of if but when. So best be prepared, says Robert Kelsey, Managing Partner at Moorgate-Finn Partners.

Unlike the financial crisis of 2007-09, banks have yet to face serious flak during the COVID-19 pandemic. They will. With loan defaults spiking and increasing pressure with respect to dividend payments and mortgage holidays, it’ll not be long before banks find themselves under pressure: from their customers, from politicians and, of course, from the media.

Even in normal times banks are prone to both scandal and crisis, some of which have been fatal for the institutions involved. But were poor communications as much responsible for their downfall as the crisis itself? Sometimes not: for instance, the downfall of BCCI in 1991 was due to “massive” levels of money laundering. But not all crises should condemn the entire bank – including its staff, investors and depositors. If concerns, once apparent, are well handled by those in charge of communications, institutions can come out the other side, and sometimes even prosper.

The key here is to be principles led. Banks often make great play of their founding principles yet, when a crisis hits, their principles tend to abandon them: at the very moment they need them most. Yet, no matter what the crisis, comms should be focused on three highly principled outcomes: full disclosure, full admission (of guilt, if applicable), and full recompense. Yes, in practice, this may not be possible. There may be contractual confidentialities, sub-judicial restrictions or regulatory barriers preventing full disclosure. And banks may be storing-up trouble by admitting guilt prematurely.

But the principles should remain the benchmark with respect to communications and messaging so that, even when prevented for fully adhering to the principles, they remain the yardstick for communications. The principles should be stated in communications – and repeated – with the clear caveat that, where disclosure or admission is impossible/premature, there’s strong and ethical reasoning why. This makes the principles liberating for a bank with respect to crisis comms, allowing them to behave and communicate in ways that are both obvious to all concerned and, with respect to any future judgements, positive, helping build (or rebuild) trust in the institution.

So why don’t they? When a crisis hits banks usually response with retrenchment. Word goes out: say nothing, speak to no one, avoid contact. While an instinctive fight-or-flight response, this is not a good look at the best of times. In a scandal or crisis, it’s a disaster – allowing just about any other narrative to take hold than the one that could help salvage the situation: i.e. the truth.

The reason for doing this is that banks are usually unprepared. They have no playbook for communicating with key audiences. So, faced with a situation in which every utterance could mean curtains for the bank, they go into a huddle and vow a silence that only exacerbates the concerns.

The alternative is to get on the front foot by preparing for a crisis. And that means making communications an integral part of any contingency planning. Obviously, every crisis is different – making full preparation impossible. Yet crises occur in what we would call broad “scenario buckets” that can be, by-and-large, predicted. There are buckets that involve financial crime (whether a rogue trader, anti-money laundering violation or sanctions busting); IT/systems concerns (perhaps a network crash or data-breach); counterparty risks (maybe a large customer going bust); or unexpected external events (perhaps a bomb in the HQ’s street or even a global pandemic).

Each scenario will trigger consequences that can be further predicted, allowing a process to be developed with respect to the who/what/where of communicating key messaging to particular audiences using varied formats. And from that process there’s the ability to develop pre-agreed language and messaging that helps keep banks on track in terms of communications and messaging while also allowing the reactive injection of the unique circumstances of a live situation.

Templates, in other words. Emails, letters, call scripts, media statements, even text messages: all outlining pre-prepared language with text gaps for filling in the details of a live crisis. Once triggered, the crisis playbooks buy comms teams valuable time and invaluable clarity in terms of what to say, to whom and when.

When a crisis hits, organisations have around one hour to respond before they start losing control of the narrative. This is the “golden hour”. And if it’s spent creating a process, finding the right people, writing base content and then calculating the how and what of distribution, any time left will likely be used having a panic attack. Bring up a ready-made document from the relevant scenario bucket, however, and the switch from reactive to proactive communications may help save the bank from collapse.


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