What is public relations? Of all the professions in financial services, this may be the most difficult to define. Among the ranks of public relations professional working at credit unions includes executives at the vice president level all the way down to temps hired to hand out tchotchkes at trade show booths.
The PR profession has been around for a surprisingly long time. It became a permanent part of corporate structures during the 1920s, pioneered by such figures as Edward J. Bernays, who wrote the first book on the subject in 1923, “Crystalizing Public Opinion.” Today, the Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
Sounds good in theory, but what’s it look like in practice? How does public relations play out inside credit unions on a daily basis? CO-OP Financial Services interviewed six credit unions from Virginia to Alaska to learn some best practices from those who work down in the trenches.
Credit union public relations practitioners who shared their time and expertise for this article include:
“Credit unions have three distinct advantages in public relations,” says Virginia CU’s Birch, “Credibility, structure and focus. We are member-owned, so we are focused on our members’ success. They trust us as advisors. These are tremendous assets. We offer regular financial services for regular people, and this is a great way to carry your story to the media. It is immediately relatable and easy to get across.”
Organize Like an Agency… Or Hire One
Many credit unions have only one public relations professional who does “a little bit of everything,” as Emert at ORNL puts it. With limited bandwidth, though, Emert’s main focus is on community and media relations. ORNL does, however, make use of a public relations agency, which has helped ORNL with the media training of its executives and subject matter experts.
For credit unions with large staffs or those that handle PR functions entirely in-house, Fernandez at Denali Alaskan recommends “setting up the department like an agency — with each team member responsible for a specific ‘clients.’” Fernandez himself previously worked at an Anchorage-based public relations firm. In Denali Alaskan’s case, Fernandez has four marketing officers who handle distinct public relations tasks, including their speaker bureau, branch and youth outreach, financial education and community outreach, and digital and social media.
Planning to Ensure Integration
The credit unions interviewed to create an annual plan for their public relations, and often draw up detailed plans on an opportunistic, project-by-project basis. The goal is to ensure that public relations “fits into the overall targets of the institution,” says Birch. “Integration is important.”
Planning can include setting specific tactical goals, as Redwood CU does. “We create goals for the number of news releases/pitches and track the number of press pick-ups and level of coverage/exposure,” says McKenzie. “We qualify our coverage using a simple rating system that allows us to differentiate brief mentions from stories where we are more prominently featured or are the focus of the article.”
“Public relations does play a major role in our total marketing and business development strategy,” says Rodriquez at Security Service. “The corporate communications, marketing and business development departments all work very closely together. We meet weekly to discuss projects and determine how we can assist each other with current promotional and community outreach projects and special events. This helps us maximize our resources.”
ROI is Tough to Calculate
In spite of careful planning, the credit union practitioners interviewed still find one public relations challenge a perennial difficulty: measuring results and return on PR activities.
“Measuring social media results is especially hard,” says Emert. “We do, however, track attendance at events we promote. In terms of media coverage, we track the number of placements and compare it to what it would have cost us if we had run an advertisement.”
“We track and report monthly what is measureable — news releases, pitches, coverage — and compare year-to-date results with our goals,” says McKenzie. “The bottom line is that at Redwood Credit Union, we take our public relations program and efforts seriously, because it is a vital component to building our reputation and trust within the communities we serve — both locally and in the industry.”
Social Media: A Shared Resource
The degree to which social media communications should be under the management of the public relations professional is a matter of debate. There is no doubt public relations must be integrated into social media communications, just as it must be integrated into all corporate initiatives. But in most cases, the public relations professional is not also the person heading social media communications.
Social media’s usefulness spans across many corporate disciplines. As Navy Federal’s Mack says, “Social media is a communications channel of value to marketing, corporate communications and community relations, as well as member services.”
Birch shares this multi-disciplinary perspective. “Depending on the situation, social media and public relations can be very different, though they certainly need to be cooperative,” he says. “Social media is an excellent tool for reaching out to members, particularly in time of emergency.”
At ORNL, social media is handled by the credit union’s creative director, though Emert is an active source of content. “Social media is a great way to reach a lot of people, and a lot of different types of people, especially young consumers,” says Emert. “You do have to be careful not to come across as selling something. As always, we try to provide helpful information on these platforms.”
For Mack, social media points to the public relations trend of being your own news outlet, in addition to working with outside news platforms. “Being your own content publisher is part of what is needed to up your game today or be left out,” says Mack. “The great thing is that when you are forced to come up with that content, you are forced to find what your story is. You find out what you stand for and then tell it.”
McKenzie agrees. “Content and engagement is king. Content must be timely and relevant. It’s a key part of what builds your reputation today,” she says. “Because social media is a 24/7 channel, we post often though there is a balance to how often we post, because posting too often can turn people off.”
Again, the key is remembering that public relations must integrate with other arms of the credit union. As Birch says, “It’s a matter of holding it all together — public relations, social media, marketing, financial services, etc. A communications program isn’t what PR does, or marketing does, we as an institution do it.”
Communicating During a ‘Crisis’
All credit unions have a business recovery program. As financial institutions, all must be ready for events that would be extremely rare in any other type of business, such as an armed robbery.
Yet, the credit unions we spoke with said that “crisis communications” is really not a very good word for handling — due to good planning — the “unexpected-that-is-not-so-unexpected.”
“Prepared messaging is part of business recovery planning,” says Birch. “Most crises don’t rise to the name — they are incidents — but need to be handled the same way. Incident communications is really regular blocking and tackling. A website can go down. Nobody’s hurt, nothing’s damaged, but people are affected and you need to communicate.”
“‘Crises’ are fortunately not frequent, but ‘incidents’ are,” says McKenzie. “For instance, a service complaint on social media is an incident, and one we deem important to have a timely and effective response. It’s crucial we have a plan for that, because our reputation and credibility are at stake. It can be tricky if a member posts a complaint after hours. Most credit unions are not staffed 24/7. We are diligent about monitoring and responding to ensure any issues are addressed immediately and effectively.”
ORNL has a crisis communications plan in place, and it provides for a wide variety of scenarios. “Our plan includes a protocol for determining the extent of a crisis, designated spokespeople and chain of communication to different platforms and publics,” says Emert. “We have contingencies and messaging for data breaches, robberies, natural disasters, branch closures and other potential key risks. You need to be conscious of what’s around you. You need to update your plan frequently. And, you need to watch others and learn from others — what they did right and what they did wrong.”
A crisis can have its upside, too, as Emert explains: “The data breaches that seemed to begin with Target in December 2013 gave us the opportunity to share with the community what we were doing to protect their accounts and what they can do to protect themselves.”
Sometimes routine business errors can come to the attention of members or the media. In such cases, “You need to be ready to communicate quickly. Provide a complete explanation of what happened, and how you fixed it,” says Fernandez. “It is also important to provide your staff with talking points, so they can communicate effectively with members.”
Don’t Forget Your Staff
That last point about staff is worth its own best practice subhead. Communicating to staff is important, but public relations is a two-way form of communications. Staff also needs to be heard.
“We are careful to keep in touch with our branches,” says Fernandez. “We don’t want to be guilty of running off and doing something without checking with them. We need their front line input. I take the ‘communication’ of ‘corporate communications’ very seriously. We need to treat our colleagues as a ‘public’ as much as we do our members.”
Media Relations is a Core Function
Public relations was originally thought of by many as “press agentry.” It has certainly progressed well beyond that, yet media relations — both handling inquiries from the press and proactively reaching out to the media — remains a core function of the practitioner.
The credit unions interviewed for this paper, in fact, have a surprising level of interaction with all forms of media, especially television requests to visit branches. “People in line at a teller window make for good video when TV stations are doing an economic-based story,” says Fernandez. “They like to interview members at such times. We work with the media to help them speak with members if they are comfortable speaking with a reporter. Of course, we work with the media not to approach them prior to completing the transaction they came into the branch to do.”
Fernandez notes that all credit union employees know to route media inquiries to him. He will then either handle the spokesperson duties himself, or line-up the appropriate subject matter expert, according to a chart/roster the credit union maintains. Fernandez provides talking points to the staff member prior to being interviewed. All the credit unions interviewed follow these protocols, and Fernandez takes the additional — and not unusual — step of being present during all media interviews.
Should credit unions accept all media inquiries? Emert notes, “You don’t have to accept every opportunity.” Still, “We can’t be picky with what type of media we are included in.” Again, public relations is an integrated corporate function; if the opportunity aligns with corporate goals, it should be accepted readily. Then the planning — already in place — kicks into a specific case of preparation.
ORNL, Redwood CU and Navy Federal have all performed media training for media spokespeople. As Mack notes, “Cultivating your subject matter experts through media training is the next level of corporate storytelling. We identify our SME’s and then help them hone their storytelling abilities. The key is to provide talking points and then training, training, training!”
McKenzie is of a like mind: “We prepare talking points, and when the press deadline allows, we prepare our internal interviewees via mock interview sessions.”
One important way to prepare for a media interview is to become familiar with the reporter. McKenzie believes this should be a constant task of the public relations professional, not just when an interview is pending. “Build relationships with the media,” says McKenzie. “They are important people in your community. Don’t be afraid to reach out to reporters and editors; educate them about your business, get to know them and, because the news industry is very fluid these days, be ready to start all over with a new person when they move on.”
Clearly, the public relations professional cannot simply be a gatekeeper, waiting for the media to come beating a pathway to their doorstep. Outreach is critical, but how? Utah-based public relations consultant Michael Smart suggests at least the following key points when pitching:
- Get on the Media’s Radar – Find key outlets that move your audience segments, then find the right reporter within that outlet, and fire up a relationship.
- Determine What to Pitch – Create newsworthy angles.
- Make the Pitch – Make your story easy to cover; do the legwork for the reporter.
- Apply Updated PR Writing Techniques: Be brutally brief.
- Create Compelling Content – Offer a story people actually want to read; Provide multimedia: Images, video if you have it; and Provide sources: Experts and “real people.”
Community Involvement is the Best PR
Every credit union interviewed within this research project is deeply involved in community outreach, and it plays a central role in each institution’s public relations program.
When asked for a single best practice, Rodriguez responded: “I would suggest focusing on community outreach. It’s probably the best and simplest way to promote your brand and establish your organization as a concerned corporate citizen. It’s also a great way to increase visibility and helps build a positive corporate brand identity. After all, ‘People Helping People’ is the very core of the credit union movement.”
Rodriguez’s Security Service does community outreach year-round though its Volunteer Corps program, among others. The program is made up of more than 800 employees who continuously help community organizations to feed families, build houses, serve military families and other activities.
Virginia CU is committed to being a leader of financial education in the Richmond area it serves. “We have a financial education director on our staff,” says Birch. “We are continually out in the community conducting financial literacy seminars, such as how to manage personal budgets. That has been very important to our credit union and our PR
“We authentically made financial education for our community a top priority, and that has worked out very well for us,” says Birch. “It fits so neatly with our purpose, what we are about and supports those who we are trying to serve.”
Millennials Are Unique
Many of the best practices and initiatives described in this article incorporate outreach to the future of the credit union movement: the Millennial generation, those consumers born after 1980. But this is an audience that must also be addressed uniquely.
Navy Federal has invested in third-party research to better understand this consumer group. As Mack says, “We need to know where they are in their financial lives, particularly as Millennials make-up a very large percentage of the military. We have been able utilize this data in many different ways, including pitching stories, which has resulted in earned media.”
Emert has already acknowledged the importance of social media in reaching Millennials. Mobile communications is another platform commonly associated with this generation. The experience of Virginia CU in this area is a testimony to the need for continuity and consistency in communication. “When we initially launched mobile deposit ahead of other financial institutions in our market, we pitched the story to the media without much traction,” says Birch. “But later, the media did come back to us — they recognized it was a story. So, outreach is important. It will come back to your benefit.”
Credit Union Public Relations for a New Century
The public relations profession seems to be hitting its stride in the financial services industry, whether its media relations, community outreach or government advocacy (a key element of the daily tasking of the practitioners at Virginia CU and ORNL).
A key asset of public relations — media relations in particular — is that it can develop meaningful content via news and feature stories in a wide variety of earned platforms. The credibility that comes with it is crucial for any credit union as it competes in the marketplace.
So, what will public relations look like in the financial industry going forward? Perhaps really not much different than in the past. As Emert says, “The best practice of all is to plan and be proactive. Be consistent in messaging. Be honest and transparent. That’s how you build trust. Without trust we wouldn’t exist.”
Bill Prichard is the Senior Manager, Public Relations and Corporate Communications for CO-OP Financial Services, based in Rancho Cucamonga, California. You can send him an email or call him at (800) 782-9042, ext. 3450.