WHY has Ulster Bank made such a mess of its communications, that how it has reacted to its systems failures has served only to make a very bad situation a whole lot worse?
This is not difficult to explain. There are very simple rules for dealing with crises, and here they are. Parents and teachers will be aware of this because it is what we expect when children step out of line.
First of all you have to explain what went wrong and why. Then you have to apologise without reservation for your shortcomings. Then you have to state exactly what you are doing to fix the problem, and how you intend to ensure it will not happen again. After that you put things right, if necessary paying people for the harm you have caused them. On top of that you take full responsibility and make yourself accountable. You do not hide behind the corporate equivalent of the sofa or the bike shed until the heat dies down.
And when organisations mess up the person at the top needs to be doing this. Put out one of your juniors and you are sending a signal that you are not taking what has happened seriously enough.
If you do all of these things there is a very good chance of repairing the damage and retaining your reputation, being forgiven. After all in any organisation run by human beings (or powered by maverick computer systems) things will go wrong, and there would be many other bosses of financial services companies out there breathing a huge sigh of relief that it didn’t happen to them instead.
Sadly on most of the above Ulster failed to deliver, or did so too late. By the time RBS chairman Sir Philip Hampton arrived in Belfast on Monday the damage had already been done. He was simply following the time honoured Northern Ireland tradition we call Operation Stable Door.
Yes there have been apologies of the most fulsome and satisfyingly grovelling variety. But there’s still not been any really detailed explanation of what went wrong, how it had gone wrong, and instead of saying that it did not know when the problem would be fixed the bank issued a whole series of deadlines for when it would be over, all of which came and went and gave bosses a similar credibility to those messianic preachers with mental health issues who so regularly predict the end of the world.
We know customers will be compensated but we can’t really feel confident that this will not happen again, because it is still happening now.
And as for the people at the top taking responsibility.
Again we are back to P7 classroom days when teacher asks who is responsible for writing rude words on the blackboard.
The room goes silent, and all the little children squirm uncomfortably, some looking at the floor, others gazing shiftily at each other.
Eventually the head of retail was put up. A couple of hours media training learning key messages, and off to face the spotlight. By that stage he was being pushed over the top like a platoon commander in the First World War, straight into the machine gunfire of the waiting press and the Consumer Council whilst his generals skulked in the wings, deludedly imagining that if they put some other poor sap in front of the cameras the public would be gulled into thinking it wasn’t actually their fault.
By all accounts Stephen Cruise is very pleasant. I’ve never met him but I know people who do, he’s a career banker with an unblemished record and a good heart. But he was the wrong man. In the RBS hierarchy he’s quite small fry and certainly not in any respect responsible for what went wrong. And it was dishonourable of them to make him a lightening rod when he was not responsible for the systems crash.
Presumably he doesn’t know any more than you and I about why creaking mainframes don’t work and was not in any way privy to decisions to prioritise bonuses over investing in infrastructure.
It is a disaster. And the little boys hiding behind the sofa will have a lot more to worry about when teacher finds out that RBS was also involved in the Libor rate scandal. Watch this space.
n Nick Garbutt is managing
director of Asitis Consulting