04/10/2013 05:22 EDT | Updated 06/10/2013 05:12 EDT

How RBC Flunked PR 101


Let's get this out of the way right at the start. We Canadians have a love-hate relationship with our big banks. Or, more accurately, a hate-hate, they are kinda-okay sort of relationship.

Canadians are proud that our banks didn't take a lead role in nearly crashing the global economy in 2008. That was a U.S.-led effort by greedy institutions that carried out the greatest financial fraud in U.S. history. One might argue the our banks sidestepped the mess because they were too honest to ever get mixed up in the business of bundling radioactive sub-prime mortgages and knowingly selling them to pension funds as top-grade investments. Maybe.

Our banks got so big, so proud, so marble-encased because our governments wanted it that way. A peace, order and good government banking system is what we created, not the chaotic U.S. system where little banks fail with regularity and big banks get bigger and somehow shakier at the same time.

We Canadians know our banks are better but that doesn't mean we love 'em. We don't like the way that they nickel and dime us to death, sell us high-priced mutual funds with one hand while with the other doling out mortgages that we hope to pay off a couple years before that promised golden retirement.

The banks spend plenty of money on surveys. They know about our conflicted emotions. We love them about as much as the telephone and cable companies (another coddled Canadian oligopoly), which is to say not much.

That's why they spend tens of millions each year trying to win our affections by latching on to professional and amateur sports through sponsorship. By sponsoring the arts and backing multicultural events.

Plus those millions spent every year on feel-good advertising.

Our banks are watching out for us. Just look at some recent slogans. "You're richer than you think" (Bank of Nova Scotia), "Advice You Can Bank On" (RBC), "Making Money Make Sense" (BMO), "For What Matters" (CIBC).

Collectively, untold millions worth of goodwill, paid for over the decades through billions in advertising and marketing spending.

RBC's new slogan should be "Can your bank piss you off better than us?"

Even after he got caught with his manicured hand in the foreign worker/outsourcing cookie jar, RBC supremo Gord Nixon and his executive cadre still doesn't get it.

Average Canadians don't care that you have 57,000 people on the payroll. They don't buy your argument that you are not hiring foreign temporary workers but rather just firing a few workers as part of your outsourcing efforts.

Average people worry about outsourcing. Cardboard capitalist cutouts like CBC's Kevin O'Leary may applaud it because it raises dividends and share prices. Average people have seen what outsourcing and the race to the bottom really means. A U.S.-style winner-take-all society of an ultra-wealthy upper crust, a heavily indebted middle class hanging on by their fingernails and a growing trailer park underclass. The American dream got outsourced.

Mr. Nixon and his HR chief, who called firing workers and outsourcing "part of normal business practice," simply don`t get it. Canadian banks are held to a higher standard. We`ll put up with your service charges and billion-dollar quarterly profits but you had better be squeaky clean. No U.S.-style financial chicanery and -- this should be obvious -- no outsourcing jobs.

RBC, with its massive communications team, just flunked out of PR 101.

Don't twist and wiggle and claim it's an isolated incident, or worse, business as usual. Own it and own up to it. Recognize and acknowledge your privileged place in the country's business and social fabric. You make billions because we allow you to, by protecting you and keeping foreign competitors out, not because you are more brilliant than the rest of the world's bankers. The price is that you are held to a higher standard. The reaction you are seeing from the public shows that they, at least, understand the terms of the bargain.

Say you were wrong. Say it doesn`t make sense to fire good, competent people and outsource their livelihoods to the lowest bidder. And say it will never happen again.

Bank of Montreal once used the slogan `"Can a bank change?" Years later, we're still waiting for the answer.

Mr. Nixon better hope they can. Right now it is only the Kevin O'Learys who love you Gord. That should make you and the other bank presidents really, really worried.

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