Barclays’ review seems to demonstrate a real effort to renew consumer trust

Barclays emerged from the financial crisis relatively unscathed, without the need for a direct UK government bailout. Nevertheless, it is clear from the company’s 2009 Responsible Banking Review that the bank recognises its vulnerability and is committed to a frank assessment of what it must do to retain and regain stakeholder trust.

The very title of the publication – a marked change from its Sustainability Reviews of the past – is an indication that Barclays has taken on board the implications of the economic downturn for its reputation and sustainability.

This is reinforced on the inside front cover with a big, bold quote from chief executive, John Varley: “Our stakeholders count on us to meet their expectations and demonstrate that we are a responsible bank. We do not and should not separate our sustainability activity from our daily business.”

Varley’s introduction and an additional (if perhaps somewhat superfluous) excerpt from a piece in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper are consistently on-message. Further in, though, the business-integrated sustainability message unravels as the review reverts to more traditional sustainability report content.

The review is available as a 36-page printed document and pdf, and is duplicated, and expanded upon, in a website. Much of the document is divided up according to the three pillars of Barclays’ responsible banking strategy: responsible finance, financing the future and citizenship. Coverage is uneven, with most attention paid to the first – which is vital, considering the overall theme – and the last, covering climate change, employee diversity and the like.

Space issues

Financing the future, about the bank’s investment in infrastructure and carbon trading solutions, is covered in just one page. Investment risk gets a double page, the same as employee diversity.

This failure to allocate space effectively stems from Barclays’ materiality assessment. Well-presented graphics show that the company understands the distinction between issues associated with the retail and investment sides of its business, and the subjects that matter most to each stakeholder group. The bank clearly comprehends the breadth of its sustainability challenges, but hasn’t thought how to prioritise between them.

Within sections, each subject is covered in two or three succinct paragraphs. Targets and performance highlights are presented at the side of the page. This design feature works for quantitative targets where there are performance data. But it reveals flaws in Barclays’ weaker, more qualitative targets, for example their commitments on supporting customers and clients.

Considering the state of the world’s banks, Barclays clearly expects scrutiny of its review and knows that transparency is essential if the bank is to restore trust. The review does fairly well here: its tone is honest and avoids greenwash.

Missing data

Including stakeholder voices, however, would have paid dividends and Barclays stops short of breaking new ground. For example, while it is open about making changes to its remuneration practices, no supporting figures are provided. In the current climate it would have been reassuring to see data that showed bankers’ bonuses shrinking as a result of poor company performance. Maybe it’s just not happening.

More content is available online, where we are also promised progress reports throughout the year. It will be interesting to see these updates and whether they materialise.

Confusingly, the online content uses identical text to the review in many places, but is structured differently. Should a reader wish to find out the latest on Barclays’ financial support for social housing, for example, he or she will find it under “Responsible finance” in the review, and under “Financing the future” on the web. The website offers opportunities to provide additional content and up-to-the-minute information – but you have to be able to find it.

Barclays has upped the game in terms of accessibility. As well as offering a large print format for visually impaired people, an audio version is available on request.

Barclays’ 2009 Responsible Banking Review is a sterling effort, then, and shows that the bank is willing to tackle difficult issues and summarise its sustainability activity.

But by trying to cover everything, the core message is diluted. A more focused discussion on the bank’s response to the financial crisis and its role in society – using the web as a repository for less strategic information – would make a more satisfying and distinctive report.

Zoë Cokeliss is a consultant at sustainability strategy and communications consultancy Context.

Follows GRI? Yes (and financial sector supplement); B+ self-declared.
Assured? Yes
Materiality analysis? Yes
Goals? Not clearly articulated.
Targets? Yes, for some topics.
Stakeholder input? No
Seeks feedback? No
Key strengths? Chief executive’s frank discussion of issues facing the banking industry.
Chief weakness? Spread too thinly.
Pleasant surprise? Innovative accessibility features.

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