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Crisis Management Royal Commission Watch - Part 7

When backing down stacks up - and why the biggest consequence of the Royal Banking Commission might not be the one we were expecting

 This week in numbers:

  • 11 years: and counting. How long some Westpac customers have waited for compensation after paying fees for no service.
  • 58: Articles this week that talked about ‘blame’.
  • 1,204: Social posts about Rowena Orr.
As we make sense of the task ahead for the industry - restoring trust - we’ll share our observations as communicators. There’s no silver bullet fix, but there are ways to stop, or slow, the reputational crisis.  

QC Rowena Orr started off this penultimate week of the Commission with no appetite “to hear further apologies, or expressions of regret.”

But as the man said, you can’t always get what you want.

The blame, shame, name game

In fact, in more than one sense, that’s just what she’s got so far. Certainly, it’s what the media have been seeing, as Hayne’s game appears to have descended into a blame game. Both Matt Comyn, CEO of CBA, and his Chair Catherine Livingstone, have been portrayed as shifting culpability wherever possible.

Matt Comyn blames previous leaders for CBA failings” “Matt Comyn shifts blame to former execs” “Commonwealth Bank boss throws predecessor Ian Narev under the bus” “CBA top brass play the Royal Commission blame game” “CBA chairman Catherine Livingstone dumps on past board” “CBA chair and chief executive blame predecessors for bank's scandals” “Comyn heaps blame on predecessor Ian Narev for dodgy credit insurance CBA's gold medal for refusing to accept responsibility goes to ...” “gold medal for the category of "refusal to accept responsibility"

The 10 minutes that shamed the CBA board” “The Commonwealth Bank’s disgraced ancient regime” “An Aladdin’s Cave of embarrassing detail

Bank cop ‘not naming enough names’” “Shipton promised to name and shame more bad banks

If you just read the news, you'd be forgiven for thinking that where not possible to pass the buck, Comyn and Livingstone have taken the armadillo approach – curling up in the corner until the kicking passes. Some major media claim Comyn has shied away from being a target by diverting, apologising, and backing down repeatedly, or answering that he has “no adequate explanation”. The SMH said that “his repeated response…was to roll over and admit to all the mistakes”, while the AFR talked of “the undercurrent of contrition” that CBA brought to the stand, and said Comyn “could well have been a robot programmed to deliver the right response”:

"As you have pointed out quite correctly ..."I am not offering this as an excuse ...

"What we are doing now ...

"That's a fair proposition ...

"We should have and we didn't ...

"As I said in my witness statement …

"In the process of preparing for today's appearance."

In fact, he has gone through various incarnations this week in the column inches, from cowed puppy to emotionless ‘Commbot’ – none of them particularly fierce.

In contrast, QC Rowena Orr has burst across the public’s eyeline in a fiery blaze of glory. Rendered positively Boudicca-esque, she’s been praised by media and social media alike as “dogged" and a "warrior woman", a fearless badass, and Australia’s latest cult hero”. She’s quite literally been drawn cleaning her sword, described as winning the day’s battle, with the “ability to inject more meaning into two words than most mere mortals can inject into two thousand” and to leave the CBA board “shaking in their boots”.

This awe of Orr is well-deserved but it also points to the thirst the public have for sticking it to the banks. It’s been a long, gory Commission, but there’s still time for the final twist of the knife. It’s become a national sport, too, this year to watch Hayne’s face for the expressions that doom speakers.

Hayne would settle back in his chair with a smile – or a tilt of the head – and savour his "knife-in-the-napkin" moment.

Bot with a plot

Despite first impressions, however, this view of the passive, even submissive, approach from CBA – and the lauding of Orr and Hayne – don’t necessarily indicate a clear winner and loser.

Indeed, quite a few saw a strategic bent to Comyn’s approach. We learnt from Livingstone’s defence of his appointment that it’s not the first time it’s had success:

Orr: I want to ask you about the sort of message that you think it sent to others within CBA and to the broader community to promote the person who was in charge of the division in which all of those issues occurred?

Livingstone: … at the time the AUSTRAC proceedings were lodged…he took full accountability, including for areas that were not part of his responsibility…I met individually with each group executive, and variously they came in either not having informed themselves or blaming other people. Mr Comyn came in and the first thing he did was apologise.  He apologised to me, apologised to the board for what had happened, and his failings in that…I think he, and we, have learnt the hardest possible lesson in the most public way.

So was he successful this week? In fact, despite his prostrations, everything seems to be going his way. Beyond Comyn and Livingstone’s active finger-pointing, the media has considered Comyn’s play to have been a deliberate and considered use of the Commission for his own ends.

Comyn on Monday was upfront about his hopes that the Hayne royal commission might act as the catalyst that finally allows him to achieve his long-held dream of shaking up the remuneration paid to the country's army of mortgage brokers.”…

"You're waiting for us, are you?" an amused Orr asked.

"You seem to be probing in the right areas," Comyn replied.

The media saw Comyn (and Livingstone) make much ado about raising their voices internally, only to be shot down. This was a clever narrative to focus on – and, with no other CBA witnesses and less-than-comprehensive board minutes, a hard one to disprove, the media pointed out.

We'd be guessing if we ascribed this response to retroactive justification or masterplan. Regardless, the simple version is that some do now see Comyn as the hero to Narev's villain.

It took less than two days to recast…Comyn from profit-obsessed banker to customer crusader - a bloke whose attempts to do the right thing were foiled at every turn…The only thing missing …was a halo. They really should have sorted out that lighting. To be painted as a saviour, Comyn needed a villain

After all, only the hero of a story would be told to ‘temper their sense of justice’. You can almost feel the palpable schadenfreude from the gallery. Others spoke of Comyn’s “crusade for justice” and “courageous intentions” – but unlike the praise for Orr, these phrases were all trotted out with tongues pressed firmly against inner cheeks.

Evidence given by CBA chairman Catherine Livingstone and chief executive Matt Comyn makes it look like they were the prime agitators for a change…That version of events does not resonate with former senior people who worked at the bank”

Treading the boards

Despite these – attempts or accidental forays into – diversions by those on the stand, Orr and Hayne appear to be closing their pincers around board and management issues.

If this – as not only the final week, but the one intended to consider the most serious policy questions and seek solutions – is focusing so heavily on that issue, then the writing is on the wall.

More than one commentator has remarked that the largest impact of the Commission is more likely to be on governance and boards than on regulation/operating models.

Discussions all week have revolved arouroyalnd the pay and remuneration structures at the top, weak previous leadership and how it led to this point, and lack of healthy tension between boards and CEOs.

For example, The Aus reported that previous CBA head Ian Narev had a non-confrontational style regarding disputes between direct reports, and was reluctant to intervene in arguments, while former Chair David Turner was “also averse to adult conversations”. “The collaboration management model was pushed through all levels of CBA” Richard Gluyas wrote. He also claimed that “rot set in under [former CBA chair] David Turner’s watch” thanks to his “tin ear and remoteness from the business”.

But how can these board weaknesses be addressed? In his address on ‘Trust and Prosperity’ this week, RBA governor Dr. Lowe pointed out that "It is unrealistic to expect that an appropriate culture can be created through regulation and penalties. Creating the right culture is a core responsibility of boards and management".

But who creates the right culture at board level? We suspect Hayne has some ideas.

To keep up-to-date with next week's hearings, subscribe to our daily roundups. 

In light of the Royal Commission we've recently completed a review of some 20 perceptual crises in the finance sector that our senior team have personally worked on over the last two decades. From this analysis we've identified nine communication strategies used by leadership teams to slow, halt or reverse a perceptual crisis which we are sharing through a series of short videos and blogs.

Download BlueChip’s COVID-19 Communication Response Kit, a practical guide to help you act, communicate and lead with more certainty. It provides communication and crisis management tools specifically developed for financial services CEOs, leadership teams and coronavirus response teams.


Download now

If you’d like to discuss adjusting your communication strategy for the current times, please call us or fill out our contact form here. 


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