Former media relations manager,
National Westminster Bank In this light hearted look back to an earlier
financial crisis, the former NatWest media
manager says the early 1970s was a testing
time for communicators. Thankfully there
were no emails then to spread the bad news.
The stock market crash in the early 1970s – when the predecessor to the FTSE 100 fell by more than 70 per cent – has been held up as the closest parallel in living memory to what has happened in financial markets over the last few months. But how do today’s communications compare to yesteryear’s?
In October 1974, I was appointed to be the media relations man at National Westminster Bank, then one of the UK’s big four “clearing” banks and a giant beside the Scottish minnow (RBS) that would take it over more than 25 years later. I had no previous PR experience and could barely find my way around the head office at 41 Lothbury (in the heart of the City of London financial district).
Earlier that year (in January) the Bank of England had launched “The Lifeboat,” a support operation that propped up the so called fringe or secondary banks, run by that generation of whizz kids. A rich mix of greed, ego, undue risk taking and ignorance – sound familiar? – had precipitated the crisis.
It was as testing a time for communications as it is now, particularly in clearing banks that had to contend with rumors in significantly less well-regulated markets than we have today. Thank goodness there were no emails flying around to speed and spread the bad tidings further.
It was a time when the UK’s Sunday newspaper business journalists gathered every Friday evening in one hostelry or another in the financial district to be fed story after story with varying degrees of substance and veracity.
The Evening Standard, a London daily newspaper, was a particular favorite for the rumor mongers. But imagine my horror when on Friday, November 29, 1974, the headline in its lunchtime edition read “Bank of England denies NatWest rescue move.”
At six o’clock that evening I was about to race for my Brighton train, and a much anticipated Sussex County Cricket dinner, when the squawk box on my desk burst into life. “Duncan, don’t go home,” barked Alex Dibbs, Chief Executive, a man not to be trifled with.
The bank, it transpired, advised by Tim Traverse Healy, a consultant regarded as one of the “founders” of Financial PR, had decided to make a Saturday morning announcement, putting the record straight. In the form of a letter from the Chairman, it said that the rumors circulating were without foundation. It also denied involvement with one Michele Sindona, a fraudulent Italian financier.