Brunswick Review Issue 1

John Duncan

Former media relations manager, National Westminster Bank

In this light hearted look back to an earlier financial crisis, the former NatWest media manager says the early 1970s was a testing time for communicators. Thankfully there were no emails then to spread the bad news.

The stock market crash in the early 1970s – when the predecessor to the FTSE 100 fell by more than 70 per cent – has been held up as the closest parallel in living memory to what has happened in financial markets over the last few months. But how do today’s communications compare to yesteryear’s?

In October 1974, I was appointed to be the media relations man at National Westminster Bank, then one of the UK’s big four “clearing” banks and a giant beside the Scottish minnow (RBS) that would take it over more than 25 years later. I had no previous PR experience and could barely find my way around the head office at 41 Lothbury (in the heart of the City of London financial district).

Earlier that year (in January) the Bank of England had launched “The Lifeboat,” a support operation that propped up the so called fringe or secondary banks, run by that generation of whizz kids. A rich mix of greed, ego, undue risk taking and ignorance – sound familiar? – had precipitated the crisis.

It was as testing a time for communications as it is now, particularly in clearing banks that had to contend with rumors in significantly less well-regulated markets than we have today. Thank goodness there were no emails flying around to speed and spread the bad tidings further.

It was a time when the UK’s Sunday newspaper business journalists gathered every Friday evening in one hostelry or another in the financial district to be fed story after story with varying degrees of substance and veracity.

The Evening Standard, a London daily newspaper, was a particular favorite for the rumor mongers. But imagine my horror when on Friday, November 29, 1974, the headline in its lunchtime edition read “Bank of England denies NatWest rescue move.”

At six o’clock that evening I was about to race for my Brighton train, and a much anticipated Sussex County Cricket dinner, when the squawk box on my desk burst into life. “Duncan, don’t go home,” barked Alex Dibbs, Chief Executive, a man not to be trifled with. 

The bank, it transpired, advised by Tim Traverse Healy, a consultant regarded as one of the “founders” of Financial PR, had decided to make a Saturday morning announcement, putting the record straight. In the form of a letter from the Chairman, it said that the rumors circulating were without foundation. It also denied involvement with one Michele Sindona, a fraudulent Italian financier.

Thus, the weekend began, somewhat unusually, with our bank messengers scuttling around the deserted financial district and along Fleet Street (home then, if not now, of most UK national newspapers), spreading the word, eventually to the world, that the Evening Standard story and a few others, were not true.

For weeks afterwards, with the bank’s share price, for a spell, standing well below its par value, my phone rarely stopped ringing. Press enquiries came from an endless stream of publications, some of which I had never even heard of, but I did know of the Financial Times.

Sometimes, that newspaper’s financial and banking journalists would gather to hunt in a pack. It was not unusual to take a call from the late Michael Blanden, the FT’s then Banking Correspondent, who, when he had exhausted his list of questions, would pass the phone to a financial reporter, Stewart Fleming, and then to Margaret Reid. She, incidentally, went on to write a book that was regarded as the definitive account of the 1974 secondary banking crisis. The whole experience was like being hounded by a group of clones of the BBC Business Editor Robert Peston.

Amidst this mayhem I was summoned one morning to the chairman’s office. Sir John Prideaux was not only chairman of NatWest but also of the Committee of London Clearing Bankers, and a figure who was treated with the utmost respect. Other than by the British satirical magazine Private Eye.

NatWest, of course, was banker to many of the secondary banks and to the property companies that were also suffering so badly. At the time the now iconic NatWest Tower was being built, seemingly slowly and expensively. 

Sir John looked up as I was shown into his room. As was customary in those more formal days, I was not invited to take a seat.

“Duncan, this dreadful Private Eye publication persists in referring to our bank as ‘the bankrupt’s friend.’”

“Yes sir.”

“And in referring to the Tower as ‘Prideaux’s Folly.’ ”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, Duncan, what’s to be done about it?”

I took a deep breath, reflecting on the inevitable consequences of trying to take on what was affectionately known as the ‘Eye’. “I can only recommend, sir,” I ventured, “that you stop reading it.”

Would that the communications world was as simple today.

John Duncan’s career, besides his stint at NatWest, included senior communications roles at American Express and the international services and marketing group Inchcape, where he was Group Corporate Affairs Director from 1986 – 1995.