Debunking the jargon Article icon

Debunking Joe Clift, chief marketing officer at CFA Institute, believes  communications professionals working in financial services have a responsibility to understand the basics of the sector they promote

It’s no secret that to succeed in today’s global economy, professionals need to have a global skill set. This is especially true for those who work in the financial services industry – not only the individuals making the investment decisions, but also people like us who work in organisations that seek to help firms achieve their business objectives. It is estimated that for every client-facing investment professional there are nine support functions, such as PR managers, lawyers, accountants, recruiters and marketers, that each play a key supporting role. They are all working together to drive success in the sector.

These individuals have seen first-hand that global convergence is an on-the-ground reality, evident in everything from the harmonisation of international regulations to cross-border currency trading. But the other reality facing the financial industry today is the need to rebuild trust in a sector that, quite frankly, does not have the strongest track record of transparency or ethical behaviour.

I have been working in communications and marketing in the financial services field for more than a decade, and was appointed chief marketing officer of CFA Institute last year. Throughout my career in financial services, I have seen the industry struggle with the issue of trust. Whether it is the trust of the media, the general public, investors, regulatory authorities or Government, countless polls show that the bonds have been broken and faith has yet to be restored following the financial crisis.

Last year CFA Institute commissioned a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, entitled Crisis of Culture, which found that whilst the vast majority of executive-level investment professionals who participated in the research agreed that ethical standards were important, a worrying 53 per cent also said that in order to have a successful career in the industry, you need to have a ‘flexible’ approach towards observing those standards.

Reading headlines like this is of course shocking and perhaps unsurprising to many, but let’s turn that question on ourselves and our own approach to our role as communicators. Do marketing and communications executives within firms challenge the work of their investment colleagues and apply rigorous ethical tests to their work? Do the senior staff within PR agencies question the briefs that they receive or query information provided by clients that they are responsible for communicating externally? Or do they instead assume that ‘the customer is always right’?

Like many in the communications industry, I studied an arts degree (modern languages, for the inquisitive among you) and was drawn to the game by a passion for telling stories coupled with strong skills in areas such as writing, the use of language and interpreting information. I joined the financial services industry after 15 years in communications agencies working across a wide range of clients in different sectors, and so have very much had to get to grips with the ins and outs of the industry ‘on the job’, working alongside leading experts in their field.

It is often the role of our industry to process complex, sometimes jargon-filled information and translate it in to messaging that resonates with specific audiences. But for those of us who do not have an academic background in economics and finance, how can we be sure that we have fully understood and correctly communicated those messages? On this matter, alas, Sartre and Goethe have served me less well.

An important career moment in terms of facing that challenge came for me when I joined Lloyds TSB in a senior brand marketing role in 2008, shortly after the start of the financial crisis and just as the bank was beginning the process of merging with HBOS to create Lloyds Banking Group. With fundamental reputational challenges facing all the brands in the portfolio and the company as a whole (not to mention the banking sector), it was critical for me to move quickly to understand the product set in detail so that I could contribute to communication strategies which would reassure the bank’s customers and begin the journey to restore trust. My reputation management skills and experience were important – but they were not the only skills or knowledge I required.

Marketing and communications professionals working in the financial services sector, as well as journalists reporting on it, know that they must be able to speak and understand industry language. At a time when the industry is seeking to restore faith in itself and improve transparency to the public, it is crucial that financial directors and marketers appreciate each other’s roles in order to appropriately communicate to customers and stakeholders.

Specialist knowledge helps us to build a better understanding of the processes, functions, roles and responsibilities of the various financial industry sectors and participants. In turn, professionals working both in-house and at agencies can develop a specialism and expertise that can improve career prospects and give them a competitive edge. This foundation of understanding will allow communications and marketing professionals to clearly articulate the messages of their clients and organisations while also ensuring that marketing has a greater role when it comes to business decisions – something that I know we, as corporate communications professionals, see as a necessity for improving the industry’s reputation.

For our part, last year CFA Institute launched the Claritas® Investment Certificate as a tool to help tackle this issue. We named it ‘Claritas’, using the Latin word for clarity, to demonstrate the focus on delivering a clear understanding of the industry, the roles, the language and professional responsibilities it carries, demystifying the terminology and processes used in the financial world.

The Claritas programme is just one solution, but the objective remains clear: to encourage all those touching the financial services industry through a range of disciplines – including communications – to raise their game.

I believe that acknowledging and addressing the knowledge gap in our own profession is a first step in achieving the goal we are all trying to promote for our colleagues and clients: demonstrating to the public that the investment industry can be a force for good, and making sure we follow through with that promise.

CFA Institute is the global association of investment professionals that sets the standard for professional excellence and credentials.