Off message: Introducing Ana, the new chair of Santander…

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You’d have thought the new CEO of Santander needed little introduction. But Ana Botín’s advisers have played a cannily surgical game… so far.

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Ana Botín, who took over in September as executive chairman of Santander after the death of her father

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When John Reed took over as CEO of Citibank in 1984, a great debate ensued within the PR department as to whether his first interview should be with the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.

Those in favour of the Journal argued that Reed could speak to the larger corporate clients and more importantly to the investors. The proponents of the Times based their case on the gravitas associated with a Times interview and the impact it would have on the cognoscenti in the New York area.

But then fate intervened.

Reed’s hometown newspaper the Greenwich Times called the new CEO directly. Reed, in his own independent fashion, gave a lengthy interview and then failed to tell anyone in the PR department.

When the story ran – so the tale goes – then-PR head John Maloney started receiving phone calls from his peers in the other New York banks, congratulating him on figuring out a way to introduce Reed to the wider world without offending either of the two highly influential newspapers.

That story came to mind when I took a look at the strategy Santander employed in crafting a coming-out party for Ana Botín, who took over in September as executive chairman of the banking group after the death of her father Emilio.

Anxious time

Crafting a PR strategy for a new bank head is always an anxious time. The media relations head will most likely be feeling the pressure that comes with the possibility that the new chairman or CEO will want a new face next to them to advise on PR matters.  And unless the bank itself is in dire straits, the new boss is trying to figure out a way to convey the message that new leadership doesn’t necessarily mean a disruption in strategy.

There is also a very personal side to this. I can remember sitting in on a meeting preparing the new CEO of one of the biggest banks in the US for his first interview. After peppering him with questions about strategy, growth and personnel, we started asking him personal questions including ones about this family. "You don’t mean to tell me I have to start talking about myself."

"Afraid so," was the response from the senior PR person in the room.

So, what was Santander’s strategy to introduce its new executive chairman?

It was perfectly in keeping with the banking group’s rather surgical approach to communications. Santander has long had a reputation on the comms front of doing just what it needed to do in order to achieve what it wanted.

And in this case, Ana Botín wanted two things. First, to stamp her authority on the group; secondly, to signal that she would listen to critics and bring some strong, experienced individuals on to the board.

So within two of months of taking the top job, she announced she was removing Javier Marin as CEO and replacing him with long-serving CFO, José Antonio Álvarez. At the same time, she named a new CFO and appointed three new directors to Santander’s main board.

The result was overwhelmingly positive coverage, which one can assume, was generated with some intense background briefings to key financial journalists.

Further reading
Ana Botin
Ana Botín’s whirlwind start

The desired messaging was evident in all the coverage. Ana Botín was in charge and there would be a new CEO in place to execute her grand strategy.

Of equal importance though was the attention paid to the elevation of Bruce Carnegie-Brown from Santander’s UK board to a role as lead independent director of the group board. Carnegie-Brown is a well-known London banker whose presence on the board will give it proper independent representation.

Santander’s approach was about as surgical as it comes. They wanted to make a positive impact that showed leadership, depth of personnel and a willingness to have an independent board.

While external communication is by its very nature easier to assess, the internal communication in this kind of situation is equally important.

The senior management of Santander would have known something was in the works, and Ana needed to move quickly to sit down personally with her key executives to lay out precisely the whys and wherefores of what she was doing. She would have had to pay special attention to those closest to the outgoing chief executive. The one thing you want to avoid at all costs is a series of resignations of senior management in the wake of change of leadership at the top.

In the final analysis, Santander’s handling of the changes was a good first step, but a reshuffling of the C-suite will not by itself answer the many questions that swirl around the banking group.

The bank is looking at the policy of paying a high dividend in scrip, which makes it dilutive to earnings per share. Along with raising its capital base, it is also seriously considering floating its UK arm this year. And finally, there is the issue of whether the group should start to grow its presence in the riskier but potentially more profitable world of investment banking.

Ana Botín’s pronouncement on those challenges will be vital to stamping her mark on the group her father built so well.



Off message is written by a senior adviser to the financial PR industry