Cultural change in the banking industry?

2015 has been a year full of changes for major European banks so far: Tidjane Thiam – the new leader of Credit Suisse; John Cryan – new CEO of Deutsche Bank; Bill Winters – chief executive for Standard Chartered since June; and Barclays announcing in July to watch out for a new CEO.

As it appears, the banking industry has recently been undergoing a major rethinking and restructuring of its leadership. In fact, since the outbreak of the global financial crisis 2007-2008, large banks have been proclaiming a "cultural change" over and over again. In their corporate communication, they are highlighting their efforts to change their practices (e.g., focus on clients’ interests) in order to prevent fraudulent behavior as it happened (supposedly only) before the breakdown of the financial market.

However, reoccurring scandals such as the Libor manipulation, fraud, tax evasion and similar court cases are still constantly shedding a bad light on banks. This is also reflected in declining reputation rankings of banks and falling trust levels in banks and financial institutions (Guiso, 2010).

From a communication science perspective, the question then arises:

Could this negative image have something to do with the way the banks were communicating the "cultural change," and the way financial media were in turn reporting on it?

A qualitative framing analysis – a new tool for PR practice?

To answer this question, I wanted to test the responsiveness of German financial media (Handelsblatt, Börsen-Zeitung) to the frames Deutsche Bank (DB) used to proclaim its “cultural change.”

To begin with, I firstly investigated what kind of frames DB used in its press releases to communicate the “cultural change” in 2012 (N = 5). Based on a qualitative coding procedure (Corbin & Strauss, 1990), I identified three frames: leadership in cultural change, review of compensation practices, and improvement of performance.

Subsequently, I evaluated the tone of voice of these frames. Based on first-order and second-order agenda building theory (Kiousis, Mitrook, Wu, & Seltzer, 2006), I then analyzed to what extent the two German financial media, Börsen-Zeitung and Handelsblatt, took up those frames in their articles (N = 45) up to three days after the publication of the press releases online. Furthermore, I wanted to find out whether the two newspapers also reflected the tone of voice of these frames as intended by DB's press releases.

Responsiveness? Content: yes / tone of voice: not so much

The results of the framing analysis are illuminating for both, PR practitioners and PR research.

The findings suggest that Börsen-Zeitung and Handelsblatt overall reflected the major messages of the frames that DB used to communicate its “cultural change.” However, they did not reflect the positive tone of voice of the frames, but mainly reported on them neutrally or positively, depending on the financial newspaper.

Indeed, intriguing differences between the two financial newspapers could be detected. While Handelsblatt primarily resonated the corporate messages of DB in a neutral or even positive tone, Börsen-Zeitung presented a corrective counterpart that developed a more critical and discriminating viewpoint.

For example, Börsen-Zeitung provided additional information that was gathered through investigative research when reporting on the appointment of an external independent panel that was supposed to review the compensation practices at DB. In particular, the authors from Börsen-Zeitung criticized the composition of the panel, pointing out that some members of the panel had close connections to the financial sector, and thus could not be considered independent. In contrast, this information stayed undisclosed by Handelsblatt.

Although it can be concluded that the frames by DB had a strong influence on the content of financial news on DB overall, the remaining difference concerning the tone of voice raises the following question:

Why did Deutsche Bank not succeed in communicating the positive tone of the “cultural change”?

One reason for this failure might be that DB tried to portray an identity that was not yet in alignment with the image held by the public (Hatch & Schultz, 2002). Diverse litigation processes (e.g., Libor rate, Leo Kirch) stood in direct contrast with the promises of the “cultural change” by DB at this time. This discrepancy resulted in distrust among stakeholders—and especially among journalists (e.g., Börsen-Zeitung).

Living up to the “cultural change”

Based on the findings from this study, banks are advised to first live up to the “cultural change” inside the organization before communicating it to the public and the media.

As is seems, some of the major European banks have started to realize this principle by exchanging the executive management of their banks.

It is hoped that the “cultural change” is not only reduced to the replacement of human resources at the management level, but also boils down to a rethink within the organization, and with regard to honest, trustworthy and reliable financial practices.

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Given that the method in this study is a new approach to qualitatively analyze how media respond to frames used in corporate communications, if offers practical utility for PR professionals and future studies. For more information on the method, please contact me.

The full research article can be accessed online here.

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