OPINION – Leaking and the banking industry: when 'no comment' can be your friend

IFR 2520 - 10 Feb 2024 - 16 Feb 2024
8 min read
Americas, EMEA
Jezz Farr

A dear relative of mine, many years ago, was a thrusting young journalist at a UK national newspaper. He wrote a political story leaked from a highly placed source that significantly upset and embarrassed the UK government of the day. The prime minister ordered a big enquiry – who leaked the information, when and why? No stone left unturned, etc.

Of course, the leakee was never discovered and my relative retained what was clearly a very good source.

I have been witness to many leaks over the years. They always cause a stir. And often, the first we in the PR department hear about one is when a journalist calls looking for a comment.

Let’s be clear – leaks are never good for a bank. They can sometimes be neutral but mostly they are a challenge. They exist because someone somewhere has an axe to grind, a burning career ambition to pursue or an out-of-control ego to fuel.

The difficulty for PRs managing a leak is trying to glean exactly what a journalist knows. Often, a source gives a journalist a tantalising snippet of a story without the full context. Journalists know they can’t run a story based simply on this and need to back it up, ideally with confirmation from the bank or another official source. Our first job, in communications, is to tease out from the journalist the amount of information they have.

Sometimes, a journalist has a slam dunk. In September 2018, a group of disenchanted senior bankers at HSBC sent a letter about their grievances to the bank’s chairman and CEO. One of their number also leaked a copy of the letter to Financial News. The first I knew of it was when a journalist called me looking for an official comment. Of course I couldn’t give one immediately – I didn’t know what he was talking about.

While trying to keep the journalist at bay, we started tracking down the letter. At the same time, we were racing to alert senior members of the bank, escalating the issue up our chain of command, informing the legal department, the HR department and other internal stakeholders who needed to know. Meanwhile, the journalist, clutching the actual source material in his hand, was itching to run a story.

It’s at moments like this when PRs earn their keep. While many others run around with their hair on fire, we must remain calm, disinterested almost. We are on the front line and how we communicate can have a profound impact on how a story lands in the press. In this case, there was never going to be a good outcome. The letter was not pretty and contained many uncomfortable allegations. Our job was to soften the blow.

The journalist called saying he had waited long enough and was going to run the story. He wasn’t interested in making a deal to hold back 24 hours or so. This was too hot a story. We needed a response and fast. Normally, such a response would be informed by the legal team and senior managers. We didn’t have time for that. So the comms team speedily pulled something together that we believed addressed the issue elegantly without responding to specific allegations. “Not the business we recognise; proud of the business’s achievement”, etc. It worked. Fortunately. And what a story it was. The leakee, whoever it was, must have been overjoyed.

Getting personal

Leaks about individuals can be the hardest to deal with. Not the “X is understood to be leaving one bank to join another” stories. These fall into the neutral bucket. Man (mostly) in a grey suit (mostly) who is moving from one bank to another is (mostly) not headline stuff.

But bankers are humans too and some act inappropriately or badly. Things get personal quickly when, true or not, allegations of bad behaviour are made and then leaked. I have dealt with several such leaks and have regularly had the job of informing an individual (sometimes someone I knew well) that a journalist is planning to write what would be a very unpleasant story for the banker concerned. It’s tough. They panic. They have families and friends who may read the article.

One leak I dealt with was related to a senior trader who I, and many others, liked and with whom I had a relatively close working relationship. A more junior employee had made some allegations about inappropriate behaviour – it was a “they said/he said” situation and the journalist felt secure enough of their sources to write a story.


For us PRs, we must act in what is in the best interests of the bank and that can easily be different to the banker’s interest. The banker will want an institution to leap to their defence; the bank will be looking for as little negative coverage as possible. These two objectives are incompatible.

On record to the media, a bank’s response in such circumstances is usually “no comment”. Policy at most institutions is not to comment on individuals, no matter how serious the allegations are. This is good policy. Investigating such allegations takes time and procedures need to be followed. The leak may or may not have legs but a bank can’t give a running commentary throughout the process. Such a stance can’t guarantee a story won’t be written, however.

In the case above, the story ran. I had the trader calling me at all times of the day and night seeking support and to let off steam. It was hard and uncomfortable. I had a clear job to do – the institution always comes first – but I’ll admit to feeling tested.

Built in

Some situations have leak strategies built into them. If a bank is planning a round of redundancies, for example, or making an acquisition, the possibility of a leak grows exponentially the more people are briefed, as they must be. So leak scenarios are imagined and prepared for. Again, our job as PRs, before we trigger a response, is to figure out whether a journalist to whom the activity has been leaked has picked up a rumour or has been told everything. A “no comment” can be your friend here too. In fact, if the journalist has little to go on, a “no comment” can kill the story, for a while at least.

But these anticipated leaks, where internal expectations are managed to a degree, are no match for the ones that catch us off-guard. Each one is unique and requires deft handling, often involving many people from different departments. They can take up a lot of senior management time.

And afterwards there will be much soul searching and investigating how and why such a leak could have happened. In all my years of PR, I have seen many such searches for a culprit. Guess how many bore fruit? Correct. None.

Jezz Farr has been a senior communications adviser to major international banks for more than 25 years.