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Navigating Regulatory Waters: Friend or Food? How To Stay Ahead in Financial Services

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Australian businesses are cautiously returning to the office, where many new challenges await.

1. Market feedback

Intelligence about the impact of COVID-19 on specific financial services sectors, not published by media. 

A. Media & PR seeking stories beyond COVID-19

We’re increasingly hearing that our friends in the media are sick of reporting primarily COVID-19 stories. The balance is changing.

Both mainstream business print / online and mass circulation consumer media are looking for “brave and qualified” spokespeople to speak about the future, so much so a several well-known journalists on a panel recently exhorted an audience of PR people to ‘unleash your experts’.

That panel’s observations lines up with our own. We had some notable successes pitching non-COVID-19 stories recently, whereas we’d previously found stories needed a direct COVID-19 angle. Media are keen to hear future-focussed story pitches, but often still favour a strong COVID-19 angle to get stories published or published prominently.

Journalists miss the think-tank environment of the newsroom and are sick and tired of COVID-19. None have ever seen such intensity of reporting on a single topic. Their current challenge is gauging the appetite for non-COVID-19 news and when reporting can return to BAU (business as usual). Journalists are seeking ‘pegs’ (key messages/angles) which can stand up to COVID-19.

Post-COVID-19, there will likely be more flexible working arrangements for journalists, and not just senior or “star” journalists.

As a positive, audience engagement levels have been at historic highs. Journalists sense that trust in media has been rebuilt, following the ‘fake news’ era.

B. Superannuation investments

Anecdotally, self-funded retirees in major super funds are relieved at what they see as relatively modest hits to their balances. They remember the GFC when their investment mix was more aggressive.

Shares are looking extremely attractive compared to the terrible returns from cash and bonds, and the trend to renewables, where Australia has a competitive edge, continues to be very compelling.

Expectations are that supply chains will diversify following COVID-19. India is tipped by one client to likely be the primary competitor to China as no other country has scale to compete.

C. Fraud and protection rising

In case you missed it, there have been big anti-money laundering (AML) fines offshore, triggering warnings about the same here. In March, Swedbank was hit with a Skr4 billion (US$407 million) fine over AML control failures. In April, US regulators fined Industrial Bank of Korea US$86 million in penalties and disgorgement for violating AML laws, which allowed more than $1 billion to be sent illegally to Iran through its branch in New York. A lot of this is due to different behaviour of criminals in how they wash their money during lockdown.

This trend has come to Australia, with the move to online applications for early release super. Australia, with its large pot of super funds, is very attractive to offshore and sophisticated criminals. With budgets under pressure, corporates need to ensure they continue to invest in protecting their business – privacy breaches, cyber security risks such as industrial scale organised cyber-crime, data theft, and fraud remain heightened risks.

2. Management responses

This section outlines how CEOs and their leadership teams are responding.

A. COVIDSafe app required for offices? Might football lead the way?

Corporates are encouraging staff to download the government’s tracing app and are thinking about making it a prerequisite to coming into the office. There are questions about whether such a rule would be legal.

Sport faces similar issues so we may find ourselves watching the NRL (National Rugby League) response to this as they lead sporting codes – and professional sport in Australia - in attempting to return to competition.

Alternatively, we can follow restaurants, who are asking patrons to leave details of the time they were on site and their contact details for manual tracing.

B. Challenges of a return to offices: and why it will be harder than going home was

Few are racing back to the office, indeed a lot are enjoying the freedom and productivity of WFH (working from home). Businesses that operated from multiple locations are seeing more cohesion thanks to WFH, with some parts of businesses are often hearing about other parts for the first time.

The very few clients who’ve had split teams (or some form of mixed WFH and WFO (work from office), however, have found that much harder than having everyone WFH. They’ve discovered physical safety, biosecurity, OHS and legal issues are now bigger considerations than before COVID-19 sent everyone home.

Employers have, on the one hand, a direct legal and moral obligation to keep people safe, but where OHS and issues of sending people to WFH (and the attendant employer responsibilities) were dwarfed by the COVID-19 risk, now the reverse is true. We will soon be trying to do that on our own premises, and to resume movement patterns (commuting, potential in-person meetings) that introduce new risks with the same responsibilities.

While actual risk of workplace transmission is generally lower than in the home (depending on worker proximity), our workplaces are also not a contained system compared to the family home.

Split teams mean different staff have access to different work technology ie ‘kit. This includes switching between primary devices (laptop versus desktop) and the more demanding technological requirements of a workforce who are now used to living on WiFi, in Zoom meetings and on multiple devices. This might ask new things of your office space, tech stack or data services - and office milk delivery.

Change of any type (apart from an abrupt 100% stop) creates more work. We’ve just made a huge number of changes, and most people have regained lost productivity, finding new levels of efficiency. Now we have to think through what to keep, what to reverse, and what to drop, but do so in a staged manner as people and businesses gradually re-enter normal locations.

Fund managers /global companies are not planning to return to the office soon, even where permitted to. This return will be staggered.

C. Divergence in impact and response

We may all be dealing with the same storm, but everyone seems to be in different boats with COVID-19.

There’s been wide divergence in super fund communication (some have gone silent, others have communicated frequently with concerned members). Within one business, one contact reported a 75 per cent fall in revenue in one part of the business, but a 2-300 per cent rise in others. Parts of a supply chain: some businesses have been obliterated, others have seen BAU.

There are different outcomes for an investor depending on their investment timeline eg 5-8 years for a VC or lifetime for a super fund, or those with commercial property income with set lease terms.

3. CEO guidance regarding coronavirus responses

This section provides our guidance on management and communication responses.

This week we’re focussing on media, PR, marketing and return to work, with less emphasis on markets, because:

  • the implications for our own clients and their work with us are now clearer
  • clients and industry contacts increasingly move from crisis mode to adaptation (medium term planning)
1. Plan for the return to work to be harder than the shift home

The challenges of a partial return to WFO means:

  • Procedural detail will have to increase. This means more communication, ideally via live briefings or video, not just written materials
  • Some of your own people will have to simply work this out, with or without external help
  • Ideally you’d use folk with some logistics expertise, then send test teams or pilot groups to work, particularly on heavy internal meeting days, then refine before stepping up to the next level of return
2. Review & reset your previous thought leadership, PR & marketing plans
  • No matter what your planning cycle (calendar or financial year, quarterly or monthly reviews) you’re in one now as we emerge from lockdown.
  • There is likely still a lot that’s right with your original plans, but it may need some changes. It’s important to re-examine your positioning on, for example, what you are prepared to speak in public/to media about.

If you want to maintain your position, you’ll need to look at your original messages and then go to market with a potentially new version of it.

4. Appendix: How to help us help you

This briefing is collective intelligence gathered, anonymised and shared with you by my firm for the greater good. We’ve taken the view, based on client feedback, that the collective benefit to you all takes precedence over normal competitive pressures at a time like this.

This is an excerpt from one of our client COVID-19 CEO response briefings. For more COVID-19 response resources and guidance, visit our COVID-19 Response page

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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