Public Relations

How NatWest’s communications moved from reactive to proactive mode

NatWest Group picked up Best In-house team at CorpComms Awards 2019

Three years ago, Chris Turner, director of communications at RBS [recently rebranded as NatWest Group] gathered his 24-person media relations team together to discuss the future. Life, as they knew it, would be changing. There were approaching a point when the bank would no longer feature on the front pages on a daily basis, when the team would not be constantly firefighting, and they needed to be ready. They also had to decide what type of team they wanted to be.

Turner explains: ‘I genuinely felt that there was no better team in the Footsie when it came to reputation management, when it came to crisis management, dealing with front page stories every single day. We were being thrown and pulled in every single direction.’

Indeed, in one notable week RBS not only featured on front pages every day, but each day brought a new story unrelated to the previous day. He adds: ‘But there would be a point where we were not going to be making losses. We were not going to have big conduct fines. We were not going to have to deal with big reputational issues. And that was the moment for us that we started on the journey to move from defence to offence and to be much more proactive.

‘It can be difficult to lift up your head and think long-term – it is very easy to just focus on what you have on your plates – but we knew that was what we had to do, and to get into that discipline of how we approached things.’ It was a journey that led last year to RBS winning Best In-house Media Relations Team at the CorpComms Awards 2019 – ‘that was great; we felt incredibly proud of what we had achieved’ – although they are far from resting on their laurels.

With the appointment of internal candidate Alison Rose as chief executive last November, Turner’s team are now focused on ‘building a purpose-led bank which is facing into the future’. But changing their approach required a new strategy for the team, which is responsible for the group’s seven brands. The first step was to recognise and focus on its strengths. ‘Because of the company we are, the relationships we have with journalists are incredibly important to us. Our approach was always to be open and engaging, so they knew exactly why we were making the losses, paying the fines and what we were doing to put things right,’ says Turner. ‘We focused on being the best in the industry so that our messages would always be heard.’

Such an ambition is no mean feat. In 2018, for example, RBS was the subject of 14,000 stories. Its media relations team engaged with more than 350 journalists across consumer, national, regional and trade publications, handling on average 90 enquiries a week. The vast majority of its coverage – 97 per cent – was deemed either neutral or positive.

The team also recognised the importance of consistency in messaging. ‘It is quite easy when you are a company with lots of different types of customers to lose the message that you are trying to achieve,’ explains Turner. ‘It was very important to have an absolutely consistent message whether we were engaging with stakeholders, the media or internally. And our message was that we were a simpler, safer, customer-focused bank based here in the UK.’

In 2018, RBS was the subject of 14,000 stories

He adds: ‘There is a change in mentality as well. There is an appeal in getting drawn to the trenches, and having that fight-to-fight, which is great, and it can feel great to get through each issue, but what you lose from that is what you can achieve in the long-term.’

While recognising these strengths, Turner and his team also understood that they needed new skills and relationships if they were to pivot from reactive to proactive. This required ‘an agency refresh’ and a new internal structure.

Blue Rubicon, now rebranded as Teneo, was appointed. ‘We felt that they were great at campaigning. We were very good at reputation management and financial communications, but what we needed was that help to become proactive in campaigning. We approached the new agency relationship as a partnership. We used the relationship to up-skill as a team, to learn new techniques, whether that was in the use of data, use of social media or use of social influencers,’ says Turner. ‘And when I talk about up-skilling the team, I started with myself. I had built a career on fighting in the trenches, that is what I loved, but for me personally it took a long time to embark on that journey and think about how we can make a real long-term difference and how we get traction, not just internally but externally for customers.’

The other piece involved structural changes. ‘There is a tendency for media and corporate affairs teams to go off in one direction and for brand and marketing to go in another. We set out to really join as a team, so that we were all on the same page and looking to achieve the same things,’ he adds. ‘This took time.’

Initially, the focus was about ‘getting in the same room as marketing teams and the business when conversations were being held about where we should spend our money’, says Turner. ‘The next step was to get around the table. And the final stage was leading the conversation about where our campaigns should be landing, the audiences, the messages, the focus – that was a real journey for us.’

Closer collaboration between the two departments was backed by the bosses. ‘There was a clear direction from the leadership that this is the way we are going to work,’ says Turner. ‘It was interesting that there was a different way of approaching this. What we learned from the brand and marketing teams, was around how to get on the front foot, proactive campaigning, planning for the long-term, thinking about different channels. What they learned from us was around how to be relevant, how to tap into that zeitgeist of what was happening to make real impactful change, not just in our campaigning to consumers, but in the way that politicians or stakeholders would be talking about us. It was about how to tap into conversations, how to act quickly, how to be flexible.

We learned how to get on the front foot from the brand and marketing teams

‘There was a real awakening for both teams about how we needed each other, and that worked incredibly well. It took a long time, and we didn’t just stop with our teams. We took it to our agencies as well. We took our agencies to work with the brand and marketing agencies, which meant they were sitting around a table as well. It meant we could roll into campaigns where, at the very start, we could have that discussion together around where our campaigns should focus on, we could have a joined up conversation with the business. We could put that together in an integrated brief; we could brief all the agencies at the same time. They could work together and present back.’

He likens the change in strategy to that undertaken by former chief executive Ross McEwan. The New Zealand-born banker was appointed in October 2013, shortly after Turner’s arrival, following the departure of Stephen Hester, who had been given the Herculean task of sorting out RBS’s balance sheet. ‘When Ross set out his strategy, we knew it would be tough but we knew it would work. And we knew this strategy would work; we knew we would have to work through this. It is about being relevant as a team and being able to think through How can we make a positive difference and influence the business in the future, not just now? It was a long journey but we knew we had to do it.’

The imminent approach of the tenth anniversary of RBS’s ignominious collapse in October 2008, when it was taken over by the government, also focused the mind. ‘We knew that we would be in the news,’ he adds. ‘We started the conversation with the business a year before. We said Whether we like it or not, we are going to be in the news on the financial crisis and there is a real risk if we don’t do anything that the story will be told for us. There’s also a real risk in the eyes of our customers and consumers that they will think we, as a bank, haven’t changed.’

But it also enabled the media team to have a timely conversation, emphasising that 2018 would be the year that the focus was on RBS as a safe and secure bank. ‘There was a reputational need to show we had changed – we were a very different bank – and the progress and journey we had been on, but there was also a need to show our customers and consumers that we were safe and secure for them, not just when the noise of the anniversary was going on but in the day-to-day threats that they faced, particularly with the move to digital.

‘What we were able to do was to land a campaign consistently throughout the year about the bank being safe and secure, so that meant talking to consumers about keeping them safe and secure in this digital age. It also enabled us to talk to our stakeholders about how we’re safe and secure as a bank and the journey we had been on over the last ten years.’

One of the highlights of the campaign was a speed dating event for customers where ‘fraudsters’ were also in the room. (For fraudsters, read actors.) But the short interactions highlighted to customers the information they unknowingly revealed in a short conversation that might help others guess passwords. ‘I felt incredibly nervous beforehand because we hadn’t done that sort of thing before,’ admits Turner. ‘But it showed where we had got to as a team. We were being proactive, using different channels and connecting with our customers in different ways. We could put it out socially and use social media influencers.’

In the event, the anniversary itself generated 657 pieces of coverage, of which just five per cent were unfavourable. And the best performing message regarded the bank’s return to normality, with 160 pieces of coverage, while 81 journalists tweeted a Ten Years On infographic created by the media team. Independent research by Populus placed RBS’s media team top among its peers for quality of engagement, while journalists also rated the bank’s leadership highly.

Turner is also proud of the campaign surrounding the launch of the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, a government-commissioned examination, led by Alison Rose, then chief executive of commercial and private banking at NatWest, into the barriers faced by women in business and the ways in which these could be resolved. ‘In the past, the way we would probably have approached [such an event] was a press release and a reception. We’d get some nice coverage and move onto something else. But we launched an integrated campaign that ran across the whole year. We landed the review, we got great coverage, we did events with the government. But then this kicked off a campaign with customers about different areas that hold back female entrepreneurship, for example, imposter syndrome,’ says Turner.

‘We held a series of networking events and round table discussions where we reached out to entrepreneurs, who did not have to be our customers, in order to bring people together to talk through the issues and tackle some of the barriers. It was integrated, not just through media, but through social media, internally and with an external advertising campaign. That’s where we’ve got as a team.

There’s a million different ways to tell our story

‘[Two years ago] when somebody in my team said We want to do this speed dating event, I felt petrified. If somebody in my team came to me today and said We want to do this event, I’d think Great, but what more can we do? You see that in the team. You keep on pushing and pushing and you become more creative as a result.’

Turner describes his colleagues as a mix of people who were there before the financial crisis, when RBS had been the biggest bank in the world, ‘who are still here because they know it is important to put things right’ and those, like himself, who ‘knew exactly what a basket case this business had been in the past and joined to put things right and make them better’, adding: ‘It’s a powerful combination of people who are very driven to do the right thing.’

But as the bank settles into life under the new (and historic) brand NatWest Group umbrella, generating profits (£4.2 billion last year) rather than record-breaking losses – £24 billion in 2009, the largest in UK corporate history, Turner is determined that the team continues to push.

‘You must keep on laddering up to that goal, because that is when you have impact. If we don’t land a story in the newspaper, there’s a million different things we can now do to tell that story,’ he says. ‘Things have changed. I feel as a company we are rightly under more scrutiny than many others because we had a majority tax payer ownership. But a lot of companies face that scrutiny today. And all of us can relate to that 10 o’clock at night fear when you’re refreshing Twitter to see the front pages of the newspapers. There have been countless times when it has been about us. That fear will never go away.’