Alan Oliver, interim director of corporate communications at Santander Bank, tells MRM’s Paul Beadle his part in making the UK’s cash machines offer free withdrawals, why departmental silos in a company hurts its unified voice and the positives that emerged while managing Santander’s communications during the coronavirus crisis.
There’s very little Alan Oliver hasn’t seen during his career in financial services and communications.
Starting off on the frontline at Nationwide Building Society, when the building society faced numerous challenges to its mutual status, Alan rose up through the press office to become Head of External Affairs and was in charge during some of the Society’s biggest PR campaigns.
Alan and his team led the media campaign to stop some organisations charging non-customers for using their cash machines, a move that disadvantaged Nationwide’s customers because of the Society’s smaller ATM footprint. The media got behind the plucky building society and the industry eventually backed down in what was a pivotal moment for the preservation of free cash withdrawals in the UK.
Nationwide’s status as the alternative to the big banks was further reinforced during the 2007-2008 financial crisis when, unlike many of its banking peers, it continued without needing a bail out. As Alan recalls, Nationwide was deemed to have had “a good crisis” by many media commentators.
After leaving Nationwide Alan set up his own company, A O Reputation Ltd, and worked for a wide range of different companies across financial services and other sectors. All those years of experience, though, made him the obvious choice to head up corporate affairs at emerging challenger bank, Aldermore, where he spent a couple of years.
But at the end of last year Alan switched gears and joined banking giant Santander, taking on the role of Director of Corporate Communications on an interim basis until November this year.
Alan started his new role in November last year. In January the world began to hear about coronavirus, and by February, Santander, along with every other bank and major business, was braced for the impact of Covid-19.
“I’m used to managing issues or a crisis scenario,” Alan explains, “but they usually blow over in a few days or in some cases, weeks. This has been at the same intensity, month after month. Normal working hours are a bit of a fiction.”
However, the intensity has brought out the best in people across Santander. Alan continues: “The situation has brought about a far greater cadence to all management contact and interactions. We have a daily meeting of senior managers and heads of business to discuss every aspect of the pandemic and how it has affected every part of the business. Everyone knows what’s going on and how it impacts us, which is vital from a comms point of view.
“That has produced some fabulous side effects. There is a greater feeling of team bonding, a focus on what we need to do and a relentless determination to get things done. It has helped to knock down any silos that may once have existed between teams and departments. I’ve only been here ten months, but I have a real sense of camaraderie with my colleagues.”
Alan has always been a passionate advocate for communications having a seat at the top table, providing the lens through which the reputation of the business is viewed, not only in terms of the media, but in this digital world, also the voice of the customer and employees.
This belief has been reinforced at Santander. “Reputation and the importance of communication have become even more prominent during this period,” Alan says. “We’ve had the chance to step up and communications people are seen as essential, perhaps even more so than usual. This has enabled us to get more done.
“Internal communications has also rightly become seen as just as crucial as external communications. Across the industry, any silos between the different functions have been swept away and there is often now a much stronger joint dynamic between these two areas.”
The practical challenges of not having all his team in the office hasn’t been a hindrance, in fact Alan believes it’s given some people a sense of freedom. He explains: “Most good communicators like autonomy and the chance to deliver great results through their own endeavours. That’s how teams feel empowered. I like to manage my team the way I want to be managed – to give them the support they need, but to trust in them.
“The team I have here at Santander thrive on that, they thrive on being empowered and deliver great results when they are. And because we are all working from home, it gives them more space to own things and run with them.”
Although technology has been vital during this phase of remote working, Alan says it is important to choose “tech with a purpose, that delivers benefits”. His people have been using collaborative tools such as Teams, or sharing information via Wikis, as well as simply keeping in touch and ensuring good morale.
He has even successfully recruited while under lockdown. “We’ve one colleague who has been working with us for four months now,” Alan says, “and I know how he works and what his sense of humour is. But I’ve not even physically met him yet!”
Alan believes comms people need to be self-starters, resilient and have strength of character, all qualities that have come to the fore over the last few months. He thinks this could change the way companies view their communications teams and even who they employ.
He explains: “It’s going to be less about talking a good game, and more about showing how you can deliver great results, time after time. Reputation is now being discussed at the top table in all businesses, and comms people are critical in understanding and shaping how reputations are perceived.
“I think this is the year that communicators are really being heard and many of us have a seat at the top table. Going forward, good people will be worth their weight in gold.”