The best way for banks and credit unions to prepare for a public relations nightmare is to practice effective PR continuously.
They should cultivate relationships with the local media and offer to be a source on stories as needed, experts say.
Financial institutions typically steer clear of media unless they are directly involved in a story. But that was before deposit runs toppled two large regional banks and a crisis of confidence shook the entire industry.
What the crisis demonstrated is: It is possible for a bank to do nothing wrong, and yet still need a reputation and response plan.
No longer can institutions think in terms of “response” to negative coverage of a branch closure or a data breach. Instead of waiting for a situation that calls for defensive public relations, banks and credit unions would be better served to pay offense.
The visibility this will create — not only with media contacts, but with the general public who sees the banking leaders in the paper and on the local news — has distinct benefits for any financial institution.
The effort will pay off regardless of whether there is ever a crisis, because it positions the institution as a trusted advisor and community champion. But it will prove to be invaluable should a crisis hit, given the goodwill it generates over time.
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Be Willing: Take the Microphone While You Can
During a time when headlines erode trust in the banking industry, no one could blame banking leaders for some skittishness.
But as consumers of media themselves, banking leaders know how it sounds when a journalist reports someone didn’t respond to questions, says Pat Dix, a 25-year broadcast journalist and media trainer for banks and credit unions. People “tend to fill that void with the prevailing narrative.”
If journalists are looking to put a local spin on a national story, they believe people in the community have questions too. So they will put together their story — it’s just a matter of who their sources will be and how the narrative comes across, Dix says. “It is possible they call the institution across the street if they get no response from you,” he says.
Keep In Mind:
Reporters often try to put a local spin on a national story. This is a public relations opportunity you should welcome.
There is also significant upside to a financial institution using the soap box when it can, says Dave Martin, founder of bankmechanics, a marketing and communications firm specializing in banks. “One of the toughest parts of marketing – bank marketing, in particular – is getting people’s attention,” he says. “The world is paying attention now. You have a story to tell, and you have to be ready to tell it.”
Be a PR Prepper: Build Relationships
Preparation for public relations is very similar to creating commercial banking relationships, according to Dix.
Banking leaders have information of value to reporters and to their community. Get in the routine of proactively sharing insight with print and broadcast reporters locally. “Every time interest rates go up or down, if you do not have a reporter in your office as a bank CEO, you have missed a serious opportunity,” Dix says.
“Journalists build networks of sources. They want people who can explain things better than they can.”
“While the reporter is there, you can talk with them about the bank and get to know them,” he adds. “Don’t go overboard, but you can provide a sense of how your bank operates, what you do in the community, and the other stories — on housing or commercial real estate — where you can be their first call.”
All of this creates goodwill that will help carry the financial institution through a rough time, should there ever be an issue.
“It’s hard to hear, but by the time a journalist is calling, you’ve already missed your opportunity to build a positive relationship,” says Dix, who is vice president of strategic alliances for SHAZAM, a member-owned debit network based in Johnston, Iowa. “Journalists build networks of sources. They want people who can explain things better than they can. When I was a journalist, I wasn’t looking to skewer someone; I wanted to bring clarity.”
This type of outreach also helps with positioning the financial institution as a trusted advisor that people can go to for help understanding financial issues.
See more coverage related to the Banking Crisis:
- SVB Post-Mortem: Communications Lessons Amid the Collapse
- Crisis Cure? Jamie Dimon Prescribes a 9-Point Plan
- Let’s Talk About the B-Word: An Industry Response to ‘Bailouts’
Be Thorough: Check Your Organizational Readiness
When leaders don’t see public relations as an important activity, it often leaves gaps in staff preparedness as well.
“A good public relations approach boils down all the way in practical terms to the staff,” Dix says.
Employees are often the ones who answer the phone when a reporter calls, so make sure they know what to do, says David Jones, an executive vice president at William Mills Agency, which specializes in public relations for companies in the financial services industry.
“It’s like a natural disaster, we can’t leave our employees to make things up on the fly. You also don’t want them to hang up, not knowing what to do. Then, the bank is mentioned in an article as ‘did not return a request for comment,'” he says. “Make sure everyone knows where to send these requests, and plan who responds to what based on subject matter expertise.”
Dix advises empowering and training the staff to invite people to talk with executives about their questions, be they consumers, businesses, or journalists.
Responding “I don’t know” to the public at the drive-through or teller line is poor public relations, he says. Inviting people to meet with an executive “provides a significantly different experience.”
Be Skillful: Use Regular Training and Coaching
Regardless of what happens in the months to come, the best approach for financial institutions is to be prepared. Take the opportunity to ensure everyone, from employees on the front line to members of the board, is ready to address any concerns from people in the community.
People in the drive-through or the teller line may just want to understand better how the banking relationship works, says Jack Hubbard, a section leader in sales and marketing at the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“Few have intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of why these organizations were closed, and they don’t care. Customers just want their money safe and accessible.”
— Jack Hubbard
Use role-playing, in person and on the phone, to develop the conversation skills of the staff, so that customers are addressed in an empathetic manner, Hubbard says.
He also recommends banks and credit unions offer regular training for employees and boards on:
• How customers can increase their insurance coverage for deposits in excess of $250,000.
• What to say to accountholders who request a cashier’s check for their uninsured deposits, or who just want to change banking providers.
• How board members and advisory boards should respond when approached in the community.
Jones recommends providing tellers, customer service agents, lenders and personal bankers with answers to frequently asked questions to help them communicate the facts. “You can also set aside a branch manager or senior customer service person who can handle trickier situations or difficult questions,” he says.
The golden rule for crisis communication is “always tell the truth,” Jones stresses. “Staff needs to know that it’s ok not to know; it’s ok to go get the correct information, or to let someone know you cannot comment and refer them to someone who can. But make sure what you say is the truth. In a lot of crises, it’s not the mistake that gets a company in trouble. It’s the cover-up – or the perception of a cover-up – that’s far worse.”
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Be Proactive: Share Your Expertise
Banks and credit unions reluctant to offer commentary without a media request or customer question can at least use their own communication channels, Jones says. “Many won’t want to go out and make a public comment,” he says. “But there might be situations where you have expertise to share.”
One financial institution sharing expertise that also happens to overlap with a timely product promotion is Wintrust Financial Corp. In the wake of the March crisis, Wintrust touted its MaxSafe accounts, which offer 15 times the standard deposit insurance. The accounts increase the maximum amount of coverage from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to $3.75 million per person.
Jones says some banking leaders have made greater openness a part of their brand.
Jill Castilla, the president and chief executive of Citizens Bank of Edmond in Oklahoma, is in that group. Castilla has been posting a series of videos on LinkedIn for weeks, as a way to share information about various aspects of banking. In one, she talks about commercial real estate concentrations, for example, and in another, what the Federal Home Loan Bank does.
She not only aims to differentiate her bank, but local community banks across the country. “Support your local bank,” Castilla says in one video. “You can find them by asking to meet the CEO. If you can meet with the CEO, congratulations, you found a real community bank.