What if it’s raining?
With bad news clouds racing one another across the financial sector sky there are few signs of those in the eye of the storm using the web to throw light on their situation, says David Bowen.
|Financial Guarantee Insurance Company||Financial Services Authority|
|Bank of England||Northern Rock|
|US Federal Reserve|
I wondered if amid the financial chaos organisations in the spotlight have been using the web to tell us what is going on. The answer, in most cases, is no.
Which is a shame – the web is a noticeboard where you can post practical information. It is a handy reputation-management device. And it is the first place many of us will look when we hear or read about problems with an organisation. Why is it being largely ignored? Because perception lags reality: give it a few years, and it will be used as it should be.
Bear Stearns has a home page announcement about the amended merger agreement with JP Morgan Chase. Surrounding this is a regular set of links and promotions. Investment banks’ obsession with awards has always seemed odd to me, but here the self-congratulation for ‘Best buy side innovation 2007’ and ‘Energy Risks Deal of the year’ evident when I visited is particularly incongruous.
No shelter from concerned visitors
It’s easy to say that the bank has better things to do than fiddle around with its website, but I would bet that visits to bearstearns.com rocketed when news of its troubles broke out.
What we might call core stakeholders – staff, key investors, key clients, financial journalists – would have their own channels. But for many others – would-be employees, relatives of employees, small shareholders, general journalists, the guy whose neighbour works for Bear Stearns, the contractor who cleans one of its offices – the website is the best or only place to get information. And they would find nothing.
The Investor Relations introduction page is headed ‘Never an unprofitable year’. The ‘Our Firm’ section has the usual blah about being based on respect, integrity, meritocracy etc. The Careers section is still busy encouraging people to join up. Japanese visitors visiting their own site (bearstearns.co.jp) will not find any changes at all to the home page – everything looks as it ever did.
Would it not make sense for the company to acknowledge that there are people out there who want to know what is going on and, perhaps, to offer practical advice? There is plenty of news about Bear Stearns on the web – not least on Wikipedia, which has been kept up to the minute by its diligent contributors (what do they do for a social life?). But none is a primary source and there a lot of things they will not know.
At some stage, presumably, JP Morgan Chase will take over responsibility for such things. It will be interesting to see if it decides to use its site to be a little more helpful.
Continued buffing of the silver lining
Financial Guarantee Insurance Company, the bond insurer, has less dramatic problems but nevertheless attracts the adjective ‘troubled’ and has been stripped of its triple-A rating. Its home page starts with a Ratings section, so it cannot avoid telling us that it remains on “outlook negative from Fitch” and “on review for possible downgrade” from Moody’s. But beyond that, no changes.
The careers page says that “We are always looking for talented, motivated individuals to help us grow”. The Investor Relations page assures that “Our financial strength, insured portfolio and a rigorous credit approach are the foundations of our success”.
Again, it would take no great effort to make changes that give the site a consistent voice. And if it does not particularly want to attract individuals to ‘help us grow’ (I’m guessing here), maybe it should not say it does.
Upgraded obscurity rating
In the UK, shockwaves from the Northern Rock débâcle continue to rumble. The Financial Services Authority has just criticised itself over its handling of the affair and has a straightforward home page link leading to a straightforward story on its site.
As I understand it, the FSA would not expect to speak directly to the public, so this limited information is appropriate. The same is not, however, true of the Bank of England, which seems to be doing the bare minimum to keep us informed on its site. ‘Current highlights’ on the home page has unhelpful headlines such as ‘Treasury committee – opening statement’ and ‘Bank of England statement’.
The eagle-eyed may spot a line under Quick Links, towards the bottom of the home page, labelled Northern Rock plc. This has a list of news releases and a handful of speeches, but nothing to help the depositor, borrower or onlooker find out what is going on.
This approach is odd, for two reasons. First, the story is so big that it cannot possibly be hidden by wrapping it in obscurity. Second, the Bank’s site is otherwise a model of accessibility, with crystal-clear explanations of economics and the markets that show that it sees the public as very much a target audience.
But if the Bank of England is sweeping dirt under the carpet, Northern Rock itself is providing a link amid the exciting offers for savers on its home page to a ‘Keep informed’ mini-site. This includes a message from the executive chairman and a well-populated ‘Your Questions’ FAQ-style feature. The main home page link has only recently been upgraded, though. Previously concerned customers had to go looking in Company Info, where one of the links leads to the mini-site.
Thought wins the day
Just one of the sites I looked at really impressed me. The US Federal Reserve has a substantial Consumer Information section and has been flagging its Foreclosure Resources for Consumers page for several months on its home page. This is a set of links – the Fed does not provide the information itself – but simply by linking to other sites it is providing them with the imprimatur they need to be credible.
There are so many subtle ways to use a website – it’s just a matter of thinking about them a little.
First published on 02 April, 2008