The Barclays school of crisis management

July 3, 2012: 11:20 AM ET

The change of leadership is minor compared to potential civil lawsuits, shareholder and investor anger, and disillusioned customers.

Former Barclays CEO Robert Diamond

FORTUNE -- Robert Diamond has become the second casualty of Barclays' rate-fixing scandal. Until today, he was the CEO of the bank, a position he held for 18 months. He follows former chairman Marcus Agius, whose career at Barclays ended yesterday. Both high-level resignations were part of the bank's attempt to staunch a flood of bad press and bad will.

The thing is the moves might do the trick.

"The external pressure placed on Barclays (BCS) has reached a level that risks damaging the franchise -- I cannot let that happen," Bob Diamond wrote in his resignation letter today. His departure, he suggests, might give Barclays the chance to do some much-needed damage control.

The roots of the problems at Barclays, and perhaps other banks, may go deeper. There's evidence that Barclays wasn't alone in fixing rates, but rather matching pace with this type of corruption in the industry at large. In the short-term, firing top executives may take some heat off of Barclays. From a PR standpoint, that's the right move. But it might not address the flaws in the industry that triggered this behavior.

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Barclays has agreed to pay $450 million to settle charges that, between 2005 and 2009, it was involved in manipulating the London interbank offered rate benchmark, or Libor, the interest rate banks use to borrow from one another. It is calculated every morning at around 11:10 a.m.Londontime, using estimated rates submitted from a panel of banks.

Barclays is on the panel, but so are other banks. "It appears difficult for any one bank to influence LIBOR materially on its own as it is set by a panel of banks," said a Morgan Stanley analyst report from June 29. Britain's Financial Services Authority is investigating a total of 18 banks, including Citigroup (C), the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), and Deutsche Bank (DB).

At first, Diamond opted for a "we're not the only ones" defense. In a statement explaining Agius' departure, Diamond said that Barclays only trifled with the Libor to keep up with its competitors: "The authorities found that Barclays reduced its LIBOR submissions to protect the reputation of the bank from negative speculation during periods of acute market stress. The unwarranted speculation regarding Barclays liquidity was as a result of its LIBOR submissions being high relative to those of other banks. At the time, Barclays opinion was that those other banks' submissions were too low given market circumstances."

In other words, Barclays argues that it did what it did to stay in the game. "Is it possible for someone to come along and insist on playing strictly by The Rules?" asks Mark Jaffe, president of executive search firm Wyatt & Jaffe, "certainly ... but who would that person play with?"

The "others were doing it" defense might sound lame, but it makes for smart PR. At first, the bank made its chairman the fall guy and supported the CEO. Then, to divert the massive amount of negative attention still aimed at the company, Bob Diamond stepped out of the limelight. This could potentially divert negative attention away from the bank itself. "If you think about it, any scandal without a human face on it is very hard to fixate in the public's mind," says Gene Grabowski, executive vice president at Levick Strategic Communications.

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Barclays has taken away its faces.

And while the change of leadership in the top is certainly a major move, it's a relatively small price for the bank to pay. The real risks are further civil lawsuits, shareholder and investor anger, and disillusioned customers.

The risk, however, is not the $450 million in fines the bank has already agreed to pay the UK's Financial Services Authority. To put that in perspective, the bank's operating cash flow, trailing 12 months, is well over $60 billion. "A $450 million fine, that's a drop in the bucket for Barclays," says Steven Fink, president and CEO of crisis management firm Lexicon Communications Corp. It would be a drop in the bucket for any major bank, actually. Such a small financial penalty from regulators won't prevent unlawful behavior.

The larger problem, then, is that the potential profits from price-fixing probably outweigh the risk of getting caught. The threat of losing money from further civil litigation and losing the good will of the public are serious issues for these banks, Fink says. But, as for firing a couple of executives, "That's only window dressing. If the problem is systemic, and I'm not saying it is, but just getting rid of one or two people doesn't solve the problem."

Banks will also have to avoid this kind of rate fixing, if only because in the future, regulators will be watching for it. But until there is some larger, cultural, or monetary incentive for a bank to go against the grain and play by the rules, they may all take the risk and opt for more symbolic fixes than real ones.

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Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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