Industry reputation is critical today. For a long time, the tobacco and oil industries were known as “black hat” companies. Until about six years ago, I had never heard the term. According to Wikipedia and clearly how the term came to be, “black hat is the villain or bad guy, especially in a western movie in which such a character would wear a black hat in contrast to the hero’s white hat.” Black hat companies are clearly not positively regarded. Today we are witnessing more industries trying to combat negative perceptions under the black hat umbrella – financial services companies, insurance companies and the old faithful oil companies.
As financial services companies faced increasing criticism last fall, we decided to investigate how they were communicating online about the global economic crisis and protect their reputations. Today we released the findings of our analysis on home page communications among this sector. We audited home pages of the world’s largest financial services companies from mid October to the end of February. Why the home page? As the world’s foremost expert on Web usability, Jakob Nielsen, confirms: “The home page is your company’s face to the world. The home page is the most important page on most Web sites and gets more page views than any other page.” Although a number of the companies in our research commented on economic conditions in less accessible areas of their sites, we saw a general reluctance to tackle the issue head on via their most valuable piece of real estate, the home page.
Here is a brief synopsis of what we learned: The majority of financial services companies in the U.S. and Europe – 66% – have been very quiet when it comes to communicating about the economy on their corporate Web site home pages. Surprisingly, home page communications steadily increased from mid-October to mid-February (27% to 45%), but dropped precipitously during the last week of February for no apparent reason (to 34%). But back in October, only 27% communicated at all. Only two of the 55 companies we reviewed mentioned the Bernie Madoff fraud over the five-month period.
As Barb Iverson, president of Weber Shandwick’s financial services industry practice group, commented: “It is not enough for leading financial services companies to communicate only in good times. Our ongoing analysis leads us to recommend to financial services companies that they use their low-cost/high-impact home pages to communicate more directly and personally with their stakeholders by acknowledging and addressing customer and investor financial concerns.”
I would add that reputations are best recovered through tireless communications. The best way to begin restoring the reputation of the financial services sector is by overcommunicating and reassuring customers online and offline. Some of the best practice companies in the survey had CEO letters with pictures, videos, corporate statements and Webcasts. No doubt about it, something can be done despite the fact that there is limited information about the economy’s direction and uncertainty about where the world is headed. I should add that some financial services are speaking publlicly about economic prospects and making themselves accessible to investors, the media, employees and customers. Our analysis is just one way to look at how companies are effectively managing during this downturn. I am confident that home pages in many sectors under scutiny will be getting onboard with their home page communications as soon as they read this (hope is a good thing).