"To have credibility you have to have a good grasp of the issues"

Chief Communications Officer, Credit Suisse

You became chief communication officer at Credit Suisse Group in 2004. After four years of residing in the country known best for the Alps, expensive watches and delicious cheese, how would you describe the Swiss?

I think the Swiss are a unique combination of being very global but also very connected to their roots. It makes the country a very attractive place to live, because on the one hand you have a very international flavour and on the other hand you have a wealth of traditions which give Switzerland wonderful character.

In Germany there is the stereotype of the Swiss people not being very communicative or talkative — is there truth to that, or is it merely a cliché?

All cultures have different characteristics, and I think the Swiss keep their counsel and speak when they feel it is important. That is different from other cultures, but I can think of some other countries which have similar characteristics to Switzerland. One just has to respect and understand those cultures, and work within them accordingly.

Due to the close bonds to the US, the UK is known as a market which is highly developed in the field of public relations. How does communications development compare in a country the size of Switzerland? How do Swiss CEOs see the role of communications?

One has to remember that, for a relatively small country, it is difficult to describe this in Swiss terms because many of the corporations here are amongst the largest in the world, and there are a large number relative to the size of the population. What you are really dealing with here are very large international companies in a small country. It is a very different to when you have a larger country and proportionately less large corporations. I think the question is more about how communications works in the international environment, not so much about how it works in Switzerland — however, you do have to respect the local culture and be very sensitive to it.

During your career you have always worked for international companies such as Shell, Amerada Hess and Centrica. What is it that attracts you to working in communications for globally-active corporations?

I think that with the challenges and stimulation you get from dealing with a company which deals with literally every culture, country and every possible range of diversity across the world, you have to be extremely agile with the way you position issues. I am very sensitive to cultural differences, and that makes it a very challenging but very interesting job.

When did you decide that a more international career was for you?

I’ve always had an international career to be quite honest. My first job was working in Austria as an opera singer. In my traditional career, however, I have generally worked in London for international organisations. Nearly every job that I have done has had some sort of international remit.  

What were the most important challenges you faced when you began working internationally?

I think it is always about perception and trying to ensure that, within a large organisation, the different parts of the organisation share and align with a common goal. More than anything else that has to do with how you articulate strategy and brand. When you have a monolithic brand and the corporate brand is also the brand that faces your client, the challenge is to try to align many different people in many countries all over the world to that brand. Being based at the headquarters of a company is a very important place for a job like mine, but in this particular job I divide my time where our business is. I spend 10 to 15 per cent of my time in the US, 5 to 10 per cent elsewhere in Europe, 5 per cent in the Far East. Where someone is based isn’t necessarily the best indicator of where and how they are working, at least not in an international company.

Credit Suisse is the first bank you’ve worked for, and previously you had worked in the energy sector. Can PR professionals generally communicate for any type of business as long as they have a good grasp on the communications techniques?

You have to understand the business. To have credibility you have to have a good grasp of the issues, but clearly you are never going to have the same insight as somebody who has worked within one industry for their whole career. Moving from industry to industry is obviously possible, but the most important thing you can do when you move into a new industry is to spend an awful lot of time getting under the skin of the business, because it is only when you have really come to grips with it that you can credibly communicate either internally or externally. It is possible and these functional skills are transferable, but to be credible in a job in a particular industry you do have to have a deep knowledge, and it requires intensive work to get to grips with way an industry really works. 

Where did you get your knowledge of the banking industry?

I became familiar with the banking sector in different ways, for example through my MBA and Centrica, my former employer, had its own credit card and retail finance company. This meant I had a reasonable understanding before I started. Then, during my first few weeks, I spent a great deal of time understanding the important issues and how the industry actually functions.

Recently it has been quite an exciting time for the banking sector, hasn’t it?

I think all sectors definitely have their interesting periods, and it is certainly an interesting time for the banking sector. I have worked in the oil industry as well, and it also had its interesting periods. For a communications professional, it has been a very interesting time to work in this industry.

Coincidentally you seem to like these rougher waters—for example, the energy sector was experiencing some troubled times and now the banking sector—you don’t choose these sorts of challenges on purpose, do you?

My view is that you should always choose something that is stimulating and that makes your adrenalin flow—because only then do you give it your best. From my perspective it is much more interesting to join a company or industry that has potential issues than to go to one which is in a steady state. I came for a challenge and there have perhaps been more challenges than I’d expected.   

Like many other banks, Credit Suisse has been severely struck by the US subprime crisis. Your company now has lost 5.2 billion Swiss francs. How did you react to this crisis in your global communications and how will you continue in the near future?

We have been very fortunate in that we were at the bottom end of those that have been affected, and other banks have been affected much more seriously. Therefore some of the communications challenges have been less so for us, partly by design and partly by good fortune. In terms of addressing the challenges I think the formula for communicating in a crisis is pretty much universal: you communicate often and in a very comprehensive and transparent way to all stakeholders, so then they begin to understand exactly what the issues are and have confidence in the company. My recipe is to be as transparent and as open as possible so that both people who are within and outside the organisation understand what the company’s position is and how they are addressing it.  

We recently reported on the subprime crisis in pressesprecher, our German magazine. Communications professionals told us that many journalists did not even exactly know the coherences and complexities of the subprime situation. How well-informed were the journalists who contacted you?

I think it is a complex issue for people who aren’t working in it day-to-day, and you cannot expect people who are not doing it for their day job to understand every detail of it. Our task as communications people is to help other people understand it in the most comprehensive way possible, so they can then write stories which are accurate and have proper context.

Many banks have been affected by this crisis. Does this facilitate your communications by following the motto: ‘see, it is not only us’? Or does it complicate your work because Credit Suisse’s voice turns out to be only one of many?

It is difficult to differentiate when a whole sector is impacted. From a lot of people’s perspective they just see the industry sector as an industry sector—and don’t seem to clearly differentiate between different institutions. But it is important for those companies in the sector to make sure that their particular position is well-understood.

There has recently been a huge tax scandal in Germany which also radiated out across Switzerland and Lichtenstein. The two countries and their system of secrecy have been criticised harshly by the German government. Being very closely linked with Switzerland, does this affect a multinational corporation like Credit Suisse in any way?

Credit Suisse aims to operate with the highest possible standards. We will work to ensure that we do not have any impact from this, but one can never be certain, you just have to be sure that you operate to the highest possible standards.

Credit Suisse has more than 47,000 employees worldwide. It must be difficult to make sure that everyone reacts correctly. How can you orchestrate so many voices?

For me the most effective communication is always through the leadership route. It is always through senior management and communicators communicating directly through their teams. But then again you cannot just rely on individual leaders in separate organisations always communicating—you sometimes have to use other techniques. We use a lot of web-based tools, such as webcasting and video, and although we try to avoid using it too much we also obviously use e-mail.

How many people work in Credit Suisse’s Global Communications?

In the Corporate Communications function — including Corporate Brand, Corporate Advertising and Corporate Sponsorship—we have over 100 people across the whole world from Australia, Japan to South America and China, so basically every corner of the world.

Let’s talk a bit about the more personal side of Charles Naylor. Your career path is quite an unusual one: before you entered communications you worked as a bass baritone opera singer. How did you start your singing career?

At school,when my voice broke, it seemed to have quality, so I was encouraged to sing. Then after having finished studying history at Cambridge I decided to go to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where I spent 4 years, and then won an international opera competition in Belgium. I was then appointed by Lorin Maazel to be a junior principal in the Vienna State Opera, but I didn’t sing any major roles such as Don Giovanni. Because I was a younger singer I stuck to smaller roles in operas like ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Rosenkavalier’.

During your opera career you had been engaged at the Vienna State Opera, the English National Opera and in Glyndebourne. You worked with famous conductor Lorin Maazel, sang with renowned singers such as Brigitte Fassbaender.

Yes, I also sang with Hans Hotter, a famous Wagnerian baritone, Hermann Prey and Renata Scotto. It was a great privilege to sing at the Vienna State Opera because I sang with world stars and that was a fantastic start to a career. 

You were very successful with your opera career at this point in time. Why did you quit singing professionally later on?

Well, to be an artist of any sort, you have to be totally committed because it is all-consuming. And if you can’t do it to the extent that it is the only thing you want to do, then you should do something else. Although I was reasonably successful, when I reached the age of 30 I asked myself if I really wanted to spend the rest of my life travelling around the world singing at opera houses, and how would I feel at the age of 50 if I had not achieved what I wanted to achieve? I concluded that there were a number of other things I wanted to do, so I was going to try something else. I gave up a tour with Opera Forum in Holland to join Shell. I didn’t initially start in communications, I initially became what they called a marketing representative for Shell in the UK, which was basically looking after the filling-stations and seeing that they were properly managed. At that time I did not yet have my MBA—Shell sponsored me to do it.

How did you first come into contact with the Communications field?

While I was working at Shell I met someone who was doing their PR, and it sounded very interesting. I simply said “when there is a job coming up, I’ll apply for it”—and so I did.

Leaving singing to join communications seems to be quite a step. Do business communications and opera singing have anything in common?

Yes, because both require you to be very focused on your audience and to understand your audience well. Ultimately a performer is a communicator. So the disciplines in that sense are very similar—you have to be sensitive to different needs and understand cultures in the same way in communications as you do in opera. 

Charles Naylor

Charles Naylor is the chief communications officer of Credit Suisse. After an MA from Cambridge University he completed his education with an MBA from Henley Management College. His communications career started at Shell where he had a number of roles. After five years he became public relations and advertising manager for Shell UK. From there he became head of corporate affairs for the American oil and gas multinational, Amerada Hess. In1998, Naylor moved to the London-based energy and services company, Centrica where until recently he was group director of corporate affairs and a member of the executive team. His responsibilities at Centrica encompassed internal communications, public affairs, public relations and electronic media.