A View From The Comms Team
This regular feature will look at the views of leading corporate communication professionals about the latest trends and insight into the industry. This month we feature the head of Communications at Santander
Alan Oliver is the Director of Communications for Santander
It’s an important position at a crucial time for the bank and the whole sector. The economy is facing huge challenges and banks like Santander are in the front line of trying to help their personal and business clients through turbulent markets whilst balancing their own business.
In all of this, the bank’s communications strategy is more vital than ever. It has to explain what the bank is doing in a very fast changing environment whilst coping with a number of unexpected twists and turns.
At a hugely important time for the comms department at all the banks, Alan has shared with us his views on the role of PR and his experience of the industry.
The most obvious change is the physical one, Alan tells me. Teams are now working from home and are communicating over various digital channels and platforms. That will naturally change the nature of those meetings in the way that PR teams interact with other people.
“Essentially, we're still in the people business” Alan says. “It’s still better to sometimes pick the phone up and have a chat than just do everything by email. I also think that the relationships between public relations people and journalists and MP’s have never been more important.”
He accepts that it is going to be so much harder to establish new relationships without being able to meet people, but also makes a crucial point about the importance of PR teams and the work they have done, not just now during the eye of the economic and health crisis, but over the many years beforehand.
The relationships that Alan and his team have built up over the years is like capital in the bank. Relationship capital is just like money in the bank. You build up credit in the good years and spend it when you need to:
“Some of those relationships we built up over a number of years with key contacts are going to be really important as we come through the crisis because organisations are being looked at very closely - all of their decisions are being analysed and we need to be able to explain clearly why we're doing what we're doing so that we're not misunderstood or actions are misinterpreted.”
Great PR is not a tap that can easily be turned on and off. It depends on the long-term confidence, relationships and understandings that are built up over years. It is therefore vital that senior management at companies understand the value that PR teams like Alan’s bring to the business in the good as well as the bad years.
A Varied Background Brings Important Insight
Alan originally graduated with a degree in Law from Warwick University and joined The Law Society. After that he went to work for Nationwide. A varied background and range of experiences, he thinks, has helped him bring a fresh perspective to the role.
He joined Nationwide’s PR team right at a time when the carpetbaggers were trying to get the organisations to convert into a bank. There were a number of people trying to make a profit out of the building society and so Nationwide was fighting for its mutual status. Alan says it won the vote “by making effective arguments and delivering very clear communications.”
Over the next few years Alan was very much responsible for trying to show the benefits of mutuality and campaigning to show that the organisation put consumers first and its customers ahead of profits and other motives. It’s not too big a stretch to say that banks like Santander face similar challenges today – showing the benefit they provide to communities and the return they offer to investors.
After leaving Nationwide, Alan set up his own Communications consultancy business, AO Reputation Limited, and worked for a number of financial services companies some of the smaller building societies as well as organisations in different sectors. He was then asked to go and join Aldermore Bank to head up their External Communications team. Alan says “Working at Aldermore was exciting – being at a challenger bank again and trying to show how different it was to some of the incumbents.”
Secrets of Success
Alan has been one of the industry’s leaders at a number of key companies at very important times in their history. He believes one of the keys to a successful PR strategy is that “the communications function is seen as a key player at the top table when businesses are discussing the whole aspect of their reputation.”
But he also thinks it should not just be about the team leader. “My approach to managing any team” he says “is to give them every possible help you can from your experience to set and achieve some really good goals and then get out of their way and let them do it. Communications people love to take something through from beginning to end and be responsible for its success. They are never happier than when they feel a sense of ownership in their project.”
Of course, as a team leader, you are responsible for the work, but he says, “if you trust your team and they trust you, you can deliver excellent results without micromanaging.”
What would you say to your younger self?
As for what he would say to his younger self – “Enjoy it, realise that you're in one of the most interesting jobs and environments that you can be. Enjoy the journey, don't be afraid to change roles and companies and don't always go for the safe option, sometimes you have to be a bit braver and bolder to really get to where you deserve to be.”
Alan Oliver is presently covering for Louise Shield at Santander and his contract ends November 2020.
By Samantha Davidson