Friday, March 30, 2012

A bank with a mission. RBS goes sustainable.

The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is a bank with a mission. Rehabilitate its reputation and manage itself sustainably. Following the failure of the bank in 2008/2009 and a 70% government buyout, harsh public criticism about executive pay and controversies over pension arrangements, sailing has not been all that plain for RBS in recent years. Philip Hampton , the RBS Group Chairman has gone on record as saying: "We are committed to being a sustainable bank in every sense of the word." Many companies have shown that they can be at low points in terms of reputation (Nike, Gap Inc. and yes, even Walmart), and through consistent, applied, systematic change to the core business approach, responsiveness to stakeholders and embedding of a new culture, can reinstate themselves as (more) trustworthy sustainability leaders. RBS is committing itself to this effort and doing what it takes with a long-term perspective.

The Bank's turnaround is based on a new 2013 vision which includes leadership in transparency and requires deep embedding of sustainability principles and communications. This is showcased in the RBS Sustainability Report for 2010RBS Group's five sustainability themes are:
  • Fair Banking
  • Supporting Enterprise
  • Employee Engagement
  • Safety and Security
  • Citizenship and Environmental Sustainability
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat to Duncan Young, Head of Reporting and Engagement at the RBS Group.  Duncan is responsible for overseeing all sustainability communications, including the annual Sustainability Report and 'impact' reports. The 'Engagement' aspect of his role includes ongoing stakeholder relations with NGO's, media, politicians and investors and more. Duncan will speak on "Fully Engaging your Stakeholders through Strategic Communication" at the Smart Sustainability Reporting Conference on 15th May, in London, which I will be chairing.

Duncan Young comes from a background in journalism - until June of last year, when he took up his current role, he was the Deputy Editor of News at the BBC Scotland. Naturally, I couldn't resist asking Duncan how he had made this transition - RBS has been a Bank that the media love to hate, and now he finds himself telling the RBS story in a way which is designed to reverse that reality. I asked Duncan if this has presented a conflict for him, at a personal level. Duncan said: "Anyone working within a corporation has to recognize how the business is able to speak about difficult issues in public. Part of the journey is becoming more open and transparent - this doesn't mean we are always able to be as open and transparent as the press would like us to be. When we come to define sustainability within RBS, we often talk about anything that can damage our reputation. As a journalist, I can recognize this. I can spot things which are coming down the line. It puts me in a good position to take that conversation to the business. This is a good thing and turns a potential conflict into an advantage".

Is Sustainability Reporting doing the job? Is it helping to get the message out and improve reputation and engender trust in RBS? After all, banks, including RBS, as still what you might call, reputationally-challenged :). Duncan believes  that reporting has a bigger role to play than ever before and that this is important not only for investors but also for the people in the street. "Reporting is a demonstration of why we can be trusted. Increasingly messages from sustainability reporting are finding their way into our mainstream messaging and reporting. Sustainability is becoming more mainstream as communications collateral in the business." So is it time for Integrated Reporting? Not yet, thinks Duncan. "I don't think the Annual Report will ever be able to tell the whole story. The Integrated Report won't be the end of the road for Sustainability Reporting." "Ah yes", murmured the CSR-Reporting Blogger, "I tend to agree."

On the subject of "Smart" sustainability reporting, Duncan says: "I think historically we have concentrated on the one annual reporting splurge and hoped that it would satisfy our stakeholders. Smart reporting should meet the needs of all stakeholders and includes impact reporting, social media, engagement programs, all developed in a clever way using segmentation. Something we did this year is to design our report as an online experience but not a printed document, improving the general experience, interactivity. It can be updated rather than remaining as a static report. We had previously produced a report called "Our Financing of the Energy Sector" - this was our first outing into segmentation. The report discussed our relationships with the energy companies, the technologies they are using and their impacts. Much of this gets distorted in the media debate. We found that it was a very worthwhile exercise to focus on this and produce a report defining the position of RBS in relation to energy financing."

The reporting process has power. Duncan told me: "Any time there is a process in a large corporate that demands data and evidence before decisions are made, that process has power. Each year we go to the business and ask questions. If there is no improvement, that instantly creates internal pressure and gives visibility to the sustainability agenda within the company. It puts pressure on people to do better. No-one wants to not make progress. This is what our team has found at RBS." Duncan's team is himself and three others, responsible, among other things, for the reporting cycle and its outputs. This cycle tends to last from November through to around April each year. As we are now heading into April, watch for the RBS 2011 report, coming soon to a website near you.

In the meantime, if you are in or around London on May 15th, come to the conference and feel free to ask Duncan Young all the questions I didn't have time to ask!

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via   on Twitter or via my business website  (Beyond Business, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

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