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Labour versus HSBC: There was only ever going to be one winner in the PR battle

The corporate PR world can be dull - no really. Come ride with me as we take a weekly sideways glance at the world of PR in the lofty world of big business, from someone who has been there, done that, and was mostly fired.

In my long and illustrious public relations career, I have worked for two financial institutions with varying degrees of excitement in terms of workload.

One was a building society where we had a PC connected to the internet on a private line just so we could monitor “carpet-bagger” forums (not to be mistaken with “tea-bagging” forums) – no really.

The second was, at the time of my working there, the 15th largest company in the world where I learned every trick in the book when it came to dealing with the mischievous political types and the ways in which they operate and try to use large companies for their own gain.

Fast-forward to this weekend just gone and it seems that HSBC became the latest financial institution to find itself in the middle of a politically-engineered spat, courtesy of the Labour party. Little did Milibland and his team of hangers on (rumoured to be labelled as 'Ed’s dingle-berries' in the political PR world) realise that this was the equivalent of poking an angry bear with a fish-flavoured stick.

The back story? HSBC stands accused of facilitating tax evasion for its wealthiest customers, courtesy of some stolen files leaked to certain left-leaning media. As I know from my own banking days and the 'Introduction to Financial Services 101' classes: tax avoidance is legal, tax evasion is illegal.

The Labour-supporting Guardian has gone to town on this. If you don’t believe me, search for 'HSBC' on Google News and take a look down the page at the list of titles that have written about this story. At the time of writing, it was a smidge Guardian heavy. As soon as the story broke, the right honourable Labour MP, Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, waded in saying that Lord Green (now Tory, then chairman of HSBC), was “asleep at the wheel, or he did know and he was therefore involved in dodgy tax practices”. And the mud-slinging began.

She went on to question the skills of HMRC, which is said to have had the files since 2010 and only made one prosecution. Given the complexities of tax cases and the legal power at the fingertips of those accused of hiding their wealth around the world, I don’t think one case is too bad a situation to be in. In fact, according to a statement given to the BBC around this case, HMRC has actually recovered £135m in tax and penalties as a direct result of the information it received in 2010. Not a bad job indeed!

Furthermore, anyone who has had any dealings with HMRC will know that it is a slow but powerful beast. You can bet your bottom dollar (or Lichtenstein/Swiss Frank) that more prosecutions are on their way.

Back to the story in hand… HSBC has one of the most slick, awe-inspiring comms functions there is. For example, it is probably the only bank in the world which can come out of a global payment and cash machine error with plaudits from journalists for the way the situation was handled. HSBC knows what it is doing, put it that way.

So, a few little words here and there now appear to have turned this story around from it being a sign of the Tories up to their old tricks of “protecting the boys”, to it now being announced that when this all allegedly took place, it was them Labour lot who were actually in charge and it is them who need a good thrashing.

What’s more, HSBC has issued a brilliant mea culpa (I got a Latin phrase loo roll for Christmas), held its hands up (kinda) and said (I may be paraphrasing): “Sure, that was then, this is now, we don’t do that any more” and trotted out the names of all the divisions it has sold off that had all these dodgy toxic goings on in, and hey presto, the City and its most important shareholders have shrugged their shoulders and moved on.

HSBC is trading down just 2 per cent since the markets opened this morning and to give this some context, on the day when Tesco announced it had fudged its figures in 2014, its share price fell by 11 per cent. Now that was a proper crisis.

Labour is now back-peddling and fighting on all fronts about not just its hand in getting the story out there, but also its role in terms of banking regulation weakness when this was all alleged to have happened.

Don’t forget, it was only last week that Milibland was saying how proud he was to have been an outside advisor to the Treasury in his pre-political days (this being his response when asked in a Sky News live broadcast what he did pre-politics and why/how people could find a way to associate with him).

Maybe he should stick to taking shots at chemists – he got a few nice soundbites out of that – rather than trying to claw and scratch at a global bank like HSBC.

Andy Barr heads up the PR agency 10 Yetis and tweets @10Yetis

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