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  1. Wealth
July 16, 2021

Opinion: Why wealth managers need to engage in public debate

By Spear's

Maybe financial services firms can do more than simply observe the shifting sands of debate. Perhaps wealth managers can descend to the arena and play a part in shaping the discourse, highlighting issues of importance and taking control of the narrative, argues Eliot Wilson

Discretion is a virtue highly prized in the world of private bankers and investment managers. Perhaps taking on the anxieties of their clients, they often seem to regard any publicity as bad publicity — an inversion of the old maxim — and when they speak they seem to do so in safe generalities, making sure that each word causes not a ripple on the surface of public discourse.

I think there’s another way.

First, let’s look at the policy landscape in which financial services have to operate now.

The new buzzwords are all about virtue: ESG, green finance, ethical investment. These things all matter for their own sake of course, but one cannot honestly overlook the performative aspect of it all. To invest ethically, you must be seen to invest ethically. Green finance cannot be the tree that falls unheard in the forest.

This public face of financial services is important because it affects clients’ decisions. Increasingly, there is demand for investment to be seen to do good as well as to make money.

The mighty BlackRock notes that ‘companies with strong profiles on material sustainability issues have potential to outperform those with poor profiles’. That centres the debate: this is about competition between institutions, and about winning and losing.

Maybe financial services firms can do more than simply observe the shifting sands of debate? Perhaps wealth managers can descend to the arena and play a part in shaping the discourse, highlighting issues of importance and taking control of the narrative. In a sector that is still regarded warily by the general public, there are huge gains to be made in presenting a positive image. But do institutions have the right capabilities?

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Of course, wealth managers and investment bankers rely on a degree of PR. They have highly developed government affairs functions and are among the most astute and experienced corporate lobbyists; they also have marketing operations which reflect their products, processes and values with a commercial objective.

But few have what government departments would regard as an obvious role, which is a senior, front-facing ‘official spokesperson’ to communicate with a single message to the outside world.

The precise seniority, role and responsibility of this figure is a matter of choice. But there is surely a place for a senior executive, ideally at C-suite level, whose primary job is to communicate with the outside world, whether that be shareholders, clients and prospective clients as a group (rather than individually) and the media.

Such a person would be authorised to present the corporate message without needing to refer to the CEO or the board at every step, could contribute to public debates, appear in the media and be quoted in the press, and be essentially the keeper of the company’s narrative voice.

It is undeniable that this approach to public relations carries risk. We have all seen media appearances go wrong, and in the age of social media one slip of the tongue or unfortunate phrase can go viral at astonishing speed.

Some may argue that this role should fall to the CEO, but I would argue that it is, if done well, a full-time job, and should not be something that is squeezed into a chief executive’s groaning diary.

The person appointed to such a role would need a very particular blend of skills. They would need to be sufficiently familiar with the whole range of the institution’s activities that there was no danger of being awkwardly caught out or embarrassingly stumped by a difficult question, and they would have to have a depth of insight which would allow them to engage in sustained conversations with others in the sector.

However, they would also need to be practised in media handling and press relations, deft enough to know what was on the record and who could be trusted with anonymous material, where stories might land best and what spin was likely to be placed on a story.

It may be that this person does not exist. Not yet. They would certainly embody an intense but unusual brew of capabilities and skills.

But they could be made: identified, trained and refined. They might be a banker with a flair for communication, or a hack with a deep understanding of finance and markets. They might come from another discipline entirely: the law, risk and compliance, human resources.

Whatever their background, however, I suggest that they could perform a valuable service for a private bank or investment firm, putting it on the front foot in terms of policy development and empowering their employer in a field that is sometimes woefully reactive. Perhaps something to consider at the next board away-day?

Eliot Wilson is a Spear’s columnist and co-founder of Pivot Point Group

Image:  Shelagh Murphy on Unsplash

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