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Marketeer of the month

By The Drum, Administrator

October 29, 2003 | 5 min read

“Total crap.” The infamous words of Gerald Ratner must have been ringing in Matthew Barrett’s ears earlier this month as he told a Commons Treasury Select Committee that he didn’t use credit cards as they were too expensive and, even better still, that he would not recommend them to his children as it is not advisable to run up a debt on any kind of credit card. By the time the weekend had come, the Irish Canadian’s fragrant private life was being splashed in the tabloids, adding further injury to company and chairman alike.

But, while the journalists were rolling in the aisles after such a blatant gaffe, the jury is still out as to whether Barrett’s comments will have a Ratneresque impact on the bank and Barrett’s career. According to Charles Tattersall, managing director at CityPress, his comments have been blown out of proportion, and his honest response on the use of credit cards is refreshingly different from the spin that is ever present in this day and age. “I don’t think that what he said was of Ratner proportion. I mean, you have to look at what else was happening in the news to see that what had been said was taken out of proportion.

“It really does highlight the way the media pounces on stories. The issue of banks charging too much has been bandied about in the press for weeks now. I‘m sure that he would have had some sort of media briefing before he went in to give evidence, and in a moment of honesty he said this. But he was making a point about credit cards in general, not just Barclays, and therefore it isn’t as big a PR disaster as many would like to think.”

But is it true that this story was blown out of proportion because letters from Diana had yet to be revealed, and the Hutton Inquiry is in hiatus? The papers may well have picked up on it, but Barrett did say it and should invest in some media training, says account director at Weber Shandwick North, Julie Hayes: “I think that both he and Barclays will have learnt a valuable lesson in terms of the media training that they need to do. It is one of the most important aspects that people must have when they are talking to the media. I would also advise that the client is taken out of the spotlight immediately and some damage limitation pieces are put into the newspapers about the company. Then gradually Barrett could come out and do some profile pieces that make him look human, admit his mistakes, and then he can get on with his job. I don’t think that this is going to affect the position of either Barrett or Barclays – they are in a strong position in terms of their reputation and the products they provide, and the public is aware of that.”

Where does the bank go from here, and what can it do to protect its image from being tarnished even further? Should it dump Barrett for a newer, less flamboyant character, or should it give him the infamous support of the Board, which has plagued so many high-profile football team managers in recent years? Ian Bates, MD at the Bright Consultancy, comments: “The strategy so far has been to defend his comments and put them into the context in which they were said; credit cards are not the cheapest way to borrow money in the long term. As an immediate response, this is the right strategy. However, Barclays needs to earn some goodwill again and it needs to do this without it appearing that it’s staged by a PR team. The company could benefit if it’s the first bank to bring out the new summary boxes and make it very simple to understand. They also have got to be very transparent in what it does, remove all the ambiguity and implement initiatives that educate rather than complicate. It could turn what is a negative into an opportunity. A key strategy must be that Barclays is seen to work closely with the Treasury Select Committee and be at the forefront of reforming credit card charges and repayment.”

The one aspect that all of our PR experts agree on is media training – as Peter Davenport of RAM PR in Harrogate points out, recent high-profile events have shown how words can be twisted to suit the media’s point of view. “You only have to look at what has happened with the Hutton Inquiry to see how even the most experienced media trained person can be made to look bad. Of course, Barrett will have been media trained, but the problems with these select committees is that even the most experienced person will make slip-ups as they are lulled into a false sense of security. It is almost like gladiators walking into the Coliseum.

“He is a high-profile figure who has a very colourful private life too, so he is aware that he is of interest to the press. But his comments didn’t devalue the product – the problem with Ratner’s comments was that it made a mockery of his brand, which in turn made a mockery of the people who were buying them. The public don’t like to be made a fool of and therefore Ratners failed. I am sure, if Barrett gives a nice piece to the FT and the Daily Mail, that the Middle England readers of the papers will soon forgive him, and Barclays will get over it.”

Only time will tell whether Barrett will brave out this latest controversy in his already colourful life, but until then most people will continue to spend, spend, spend. Especially if they don’t earn £1m plus a year.

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