Irresponsible investment? HSBC’s ESG communications crisis

For HSBC, a bank committed to “playing a leading role in mobilising the transition to a global net zero economy … by helping to shape and influence the global policy agenda”, sponsoring and addressing the FT Moral Money Summit, with its theme of “Turning Talk into Action to Hit ESG Targets”, must have seemed like the perfect profile-raising opportunity.

But far from burnishing its ESG credentials, HSBC is now reeling from a PR disaster involving the suspension of Stuart Kirk, the global head of responsible investment at its asset management division, following his controversial comments on climate change at last week’s event.

The fallout from Kirk’s speech and HSBC’s response have made headlines around the world – from the Financial Times to The Mirror, The Straits Times to The Wall Street Journal – and polarised opinion, prompting both outrage at his ‘offensive’ remarks and support for daring to tell the ‘truth’.

Kirk – a former FT journalist and editor of Lex – gave a presentation entitled “Why investors need not worry about climate risk”, which accused policymakers and central bankers of overstating the financial risks of climate change and included a slide saying “Unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong”.

Attacking climate “nut jobs”, he complained about having to spend time “looking at something that’s going to happen in 20 or 30 years”, and joked about the risk of flooding, saying, “Who cares if Miami is six metres underwater in 100 years? Amsterdam has been six metres underwater for ages and that’s a really nice place.”

Following an outcry over his remarks from climate change activists, HSBC’s chief executive and its head of wealth and personal banking both denounced Kirk’s remarks via social media posts.

Yet according to the FT, which first reported Kirk’s suspension, the theme and content of his speech had been agreed internally within HSBC a couple of months earlier.  

The bank’s PR team has, unsurprisingly, been firefighting ever since the event but declined to comment on Kirk’s suspension when contacted by media.

Kirk’s remarks were always likely to be controversial and provocative, given his views on climate change risk and his outspoken nature, of which HSBC’s management and PR team were presumably aware. So why did HSBC sanction his speech, yet fail to predict and prepare for the inevitable backlash, only to perform a spectacular U-turn after the event and ‘cancel’ him pending an internal investigation? Moreover, in light of his uncompromising and combative stance on climate change, what does Kirk’s position as global head of responsible investment say about HSBC’s commitment to a net zero future? Is the bank simply playing lip service in its climate strategy pledge?

Businesses should either accept that they are broad churches with individuals holding different views with full entitlement to express them (as long as this is done respectfully), and be prepared to deal with the potential fallout – or they should make clear that there is only ever one corporate line that can be expressed publicly, and ensure consistency in actions as well as words. This principle extends way beyond the ESG sphere – and it is the basis from which all communications advice should flow.

The PR debacle comes just weeks after HSBC faced accusations of greenwashing by the UK’s advertising regulator. A leaked draft report by the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that two HSBC adverts misled customers by selectively promoting green initiatives while failing to disclose information about the bank’s financing of companies with substantial greenhouse gas emissions.  

And last year, HSBC came under fire from shareholders for failing to take climate change seriously, with some of Europe’s leading investors filing a climate resolution that called on the bank to publish a strategy and targets to reduce its exposure to fossil fuel assets.

One thing is certain: if HSBC wants to fulfil its “ambition … to be the leading bank supporting the global economy in the transition to net zero,” as CEO Noel Quinn posted on LinkedIn over the weekend, it has a long way to go.    

Written by Sarah Peters

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PR Gone Wrong: International Women’s Day

Of all the PR and marketing initiatives launched on International Women’s Day on Tuesday this week, one in particular stood out – for all the wrong reasons. 

The London Dungeon decided to change the gender of Jack The Ripper to mark the day, unveiling a “Jack becomes Jackie” exhibit played by a female actor and questioning whether the “notorious killer [was] actually a woman”. The serial killer, who was never identified, murdered at least five women in Whitechapel in the late 1880s.  

The special International Women’s Day exhibit told the story of convicted murderer Mary Pearcy, who was named as a possible Jack the Ripper suspect by author William Stewart in 1939.

In a now deleted press release, The London Dungeon said: “With men often stealing the spotlight when it comes to the ghastly and gory crimes, we wanted to give ladies their dues for International Women’s Day … Rather than the usual honouring, we’ve given the day a London Dungeon twist while telling a story that many may never have heard before.”

Not surprisingly, The London Dungeon’s actions were greeted with incredulity and outrage on Twitter.

In a strongly-worded rebuke, Refuge, the domestic violence charity, branded the initiative “a cheap marketing stunt” that “trivialises the systematic murder of women by a serial killer”.

Following the social media backlash and subsequent mainstream media interest, The London Dungeon deleted its communications on Jackie The Ripper and was forced to issue a statement apologising for any offence caused. 

Controversially exploiting and sensationalising violence against women by recasting a serial killer of women as a woman in a cynical and blatant bid to boost ticket sales – on a day meant to celebrate women’s achievements, a year after the murder of Sarah Everard, and amid a high-profile campaign to make misogyny a hate crime – was never a good idea.

Tasteless, offensive, ill-judged (if, in fact, any judgement was shown at all), the sorry episode highlights just how out of touch The London Dungeon was with the public mood, putting commercial considerations above all else and underestimating the risk of reputational damage.

Burger King similarly made a whopper of a PR blunder on International Women’s Day last year, tweeting “Women belong in the kitchen”.  A supposedly humorous teaser for a campaign promoting a cooking scholarship for female employees, most people did not read beyond this initial Tweet, with many taking to social media to express their disgust at the use of such a sexist trope, on International Women’s Day of all days.

A subsequent Tweet provided much-needed context: “If they want to, of course. Yet only 20% of chefs are women. We’re on a mission to change the gender ratio.” But by then, the damage had been done and Burger King’s PR team spent the day firefighting – responding to media queries, explaining the campaign, apologising for getting the initial message wrong and promising to do better next time, and eventually deleting the offending Tweet. 

PR Lessons To Be Learned

So, what lessons can be learned? Do your research. Know your audience. Understand the wider context. Be aware of potential pitfalls and sensitivities. Test your ideas – and not just within your immediate team, to avoid groupthink. Be careful when using humour to promote an issue with the potential to cause offense or upset. And if you get it wrong and a PR debacle ensues, ‘fess up – take swift action to apologise, engage with the media and your followers, and learn from your mistakes.

 By Sarah Peters, 11/03/2021

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BBC: Chasing Polar Bears

The news that Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel are leaving the BBC is the latest in a line of senior journalist departures for the Beeb. It comes hot on the heels of business reporter losses precipitated by moving the R4 Today business team from London to Manchester and rumours that Amol Rajan was given the much-maligned interview with Novak Djokovic as a sop to avoid his defection to ITV. All this, of course, at a time when Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is questioning the BBC funding model and when the Government, not to mention swathes of viewers, are concerned our once-loved national broadcaster has become too woke for its own good.  

So what does all this ‘trouble at mill’ mean for us PRs? 

Well, it merely confirms a trend that has been emerging in recent years. The BBC is no longer necessarily the golden ticket to getting your PR campaign away. It may no longer be the most coveted medium your clients want to cover your story. It may not, in fact, deliver the audience you need to address.  

That is not to say the BBC is no longer important. Don’t go writing the corporation off just yet. On the world stage, the BBC brand still shines brightly.  But with other media outlets and a proliferation of mediums growing loyal listeners and followers, from Global to You Tube to Podcasts, and with many of those outlets devoted to a preferred agenda, the media landscape is now so diverse that targeting content is a far more precise art these days.  Associating your brand and its experts with the agenda of your preferred media outlet by offering appearances/pitching articles increasingly requires consideration of the risk:reward ratio.  If the BBC can no longer hold itself up as the bastion of impartiality, then it becomes just another player in the influence game. 

Ms Dorries described the BBC this week as “a polar bear on a shrinking ice cap”.  That makes life more complicated for us PRs but also arguably more interesting too.  

Louise Beeson, 24/02/2022

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Send in the Clowns

Another day, another PR gaffe from Number 10 and its communications machine.

It might only be his first day in the job but the Prime Minister’s new director of communications, Guto Harri, has already made the UK national headlines for saying that Boris Johnson is “not a complete clown”.

Describing a meeting he had with Johnson last week, Harri told Welsh-language news website, Golwg.360, that the Prime Minster initiated a rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, that there was “a lot of laughing” and “a serious conversation about how we get the government back on track and how we move forward”.

If Harri was trying to change perceptions of his boss from a party-loving clown – whether in the sense of a jester or a fool, or both – to a competent leader capable of serious thought and committed to delivering his agenda for the country, then it was an interesting approach, to say the least.

PR Perspective

One of the most basic rules of PR is, don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to see in print – and that includes repeating inflammatory or damaging words, even if used in a negative context. As in Harri’s case, those words often become the headline and have the opposite effect to that intended.

Furthermore, if you’re going to cite examples, make sure they’re consistent with your overall message. The image of the Prime Minister singing a seventies disco classic with his new communications chief simply reinforces those perceptions of buffoonery. (Similarly, was eulogising Peppa Pig World in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry – as Johnson did last year – really going to burnish his credentials as someone serious about business?)

In another departure from PR best practice, Harri was repeating a private conversation he had with the Prime Minister, which he must have realised would be picked up by the mainstream UK media. Johnson’s official spokesperson declined to comment, saying he “would not get into private conversations”.    

And in telling the story, Harri has become the story – something which PR professionals usually go to great lengths to avoid. Their job should be to develop communications strategy, shape the messages and advise on their delivery from behind the scenes, rather than taking centre stage.  

Reactions from the Prime Minister’s opponents

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister’s opponents have leapt on the comments, with Labour calling out the “clown show nonsense” and Nicola Sturgeon branding them “offensive” in the current circumstances.

Time will tell whether Harri and the rest of the new Number 10 team of “grown-ups” can help to reset the balance, restore trust in the government and ensure that the Prime Minister does indeed survive. There is no doubt that the task is immense – but it is certainly providing plenty of fodder for PR case studies.

Sarah Peters, 08/02/2022

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