PR Completely Overshadows Ads as Financial Crisis Lingers

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As a recent Newsweek article points out that “Public anger at financiers is at levels last seen in Moscow circa 1917.”

The truth is that the financial industry has painted itself in a corner, one that it can’t advertise its way out of. It’s a difficult reality to accept (and one that probably won’t sit well with the 150 or so ad agencies following The Financial Brand), especially considering how comfortable most financial marketers are with running ads; ads are familiar, and easy to manage.

It helps to remember that ads succeed primarily at two things: selling stuff and building awareness. What they don’t do well is help a company clean up its image during times of crisis.

So what can a financial institution do?

“More TV interviews, speeches, and op-ed pieces,” according to Andy Bateman, CEO/Interbrand New York (an ad agency). “People want to hear directly from bank executives. They want to look these guys in the eye and believe them.”

That’s what Paul Stull, VP of Marketing/Arizona State Credit Union is doing. “I am spending nearly all of my time on PR,” he told The Financial Brand. “Actually maybe even a little more than that!”

But not every financial marketer is ready for the shift from ads and other traditional methods of disseminating messages. As Newsweek noted when bailout banks couldn’t explain what they’d done with their TARP money, “The well-heeled heels who flunked Risk Management 101 are now also failing PR 101.”

Stull cautions against what he calls “phoney, self-serving” PR, those hollow claims like “despite the economic crisis, we’re still safe and strong.” Where’s the proof?

“Not many financial institutions are ‘doing,’ most are just ‘saying,'” Stull observed. “Your message needs to be real and show what you are doing.”

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While PR can help you get your message across, it is not a panacea that will repair the industry’s image. As Ron Shevlin, an analyst with Aite, cautioned, “Yes, banks can repair their image, but not by advertising or PR. It will take strong operational execution.”

Newsweek had a number of suggestions along those lines, things that some financial institutions have started to embrace:

  • Cut the salaries of top brass
  • Discontinue foreclosures
  • Cancel junkets
  • Buy shares of your own stock
  • Temporarily discontinue late fees on credit cards

Bottom Line: If you’ve got something to say, PR is your best venue right now. Financial institutions have zero credibility (see the UPDATE in the comments below), so you need a credible messenger if what you want to say is to have any impact.

Tips for Working with the Media

Respond Quickly
If a reporter calls you, they are probably on a deadline — a short one. Get back with them as soon as you can. If you don’t immediately have the answers, ask them how much time you have to get back with them, then make sure you follow through.

Educate Them
Most journalists are responsible for covering an enormous number of issues. Just because they’re writing a story about the financial industry, don’t assume they know everything they should. You should avoid a lot of industry jargon, and spell out the acronyms.

Do they know what a capital ratio is and what it means? Do they understand loan loss provisions? Do they know the difference between the FDIC and NCUA? Do they know what defines a “failed financial institution,” and when the Feds will step in? Do they know credit unions are not-for-profit and not non-profit? Probably not.

Think Before You Speak
Don’t try to figure out what you’re going to say to the reporter while you’re on the phone with them. Figure it out beforehand. Sometimes it can help to write out what you want to say before you schedule an interview. Whenever you have the chance, ask the reporter if they can email you the questions they want to ask prior to the interview.

Reach Out
If you see a reporter writing about financial institutions in your area, give them a call or send them an email. Let them know you’re willing to help and work with them on their next article.

Have Basic Facts Ready
If you don’t have a press kit put together yet, now is the time. Start with a simple one-page overview about your financial institution, and include all the pertinent facts: assets, capital, cap ratio, customers, branches, years in business, etc. You can send this to reporters before or after interviews so they can reference such facts in their articles. Just to be safe, always include that you are insured by either the FDIC or NCUA.

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