‘One and Done’ Messaging Won’t Fix Public’s Banking Jitters

2023's bank failures have people wondering about the state of the financial services business and about their local institutions. Building and maintaining trust with customers and the public will take more than strategic tweeting and posting. Banking leaders have to reach out and talk to local groups face to face, says noted communications consultant Merrie Spaeth.

Newspaper and digital headlines, breaking TV news and social media posts about bank failures are causing the public to worry. A new Gallup poll — much reported in the media — finds half of Americans are “concerned” about the funds they have in financial institutions and another 30% are “not too worried” — hardly a ringing endorsement. Only 20% are “not worried at all.” With this kind of news wallpaper, banks and credit unions are wondering how to build public confidence and trust.

Some financial institutions would like to be pro-active but worry if customers, the public at large, and even elected officials would question why they are talking about safety and soundness now.

Here’s my advice based on 35 years of advising and coaching financial institutions and experiences like setting up President Reagan’s national speakers bureau on de-regulation initiatives and dispatching Texas bankers across the state to finally successfully repeal the prohibition on home equity lending.

Banks and Credit Unions Must Get a Grip on the Facts

To understand the strategy, we have to diagnose the situation. From all I can see, the financial system and its institutions are in good shape. Remember the World War II general’s admonition: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Good shape, not perfect shape. The Federal Reserve and Treasury Department have taken to using the words “sound and resilient” as opposed to “safe.”

So what’s going on? It’s a matter of maintaining confidence.

Many people in this country are working their way into a crisis in confidence. In the effort to resist this trend, regional and community banks and credit unions are the frontline troops. Ideally, I should be addressing this to state bank and credit union associations, but the task will fall to representatives of individual institutions.

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Put a Face to Your Efforts to Demonstrate Why Financial Institutions Matter

There’s no shortcut. The way to build public confidence and trust is to get in front of your local Rotary, Kiwanis Club, the local Republican and Democrat monthly meetings, the local Realtors, the doctors groups and any other local organization that meets regularly.

Ask yourself: “What would I like them to know about the role our institutions play in our community?”

Call up these groups and invite yourself to speak for 15 minutes at an upcoming meeting. Because banking is in the news, for all the wrong reasons as we’ve established, you’re a hot topic.

Use your 15 minutes to get across that you’re the good guys. Here are your talking points: how I got started as a banker, what did I learn from my first customers, what are the values of our bank, what’s changed since I started as a banker (a lot), what does our bank or credit union do in the community. Add at least two examples of small businesses you’ve helped get started or expand.

Notice that this isn’t a marketing presentation and it’s not a point-by-point effort to counter the headlines and social media posts. Instead, it’s you talking to friends and peers. Notice you’re not mentioning Silicon Valley Bank (or Signature or First Republic.) You’re not whining about regulators. You’re not even talking about the buzz words — safety, soundness and resilience.

That’s because your 15 minutes of remarks will be followed by Q and A. And that’s where all those questions will come up. Beyond that, you’ll get questions about bitcoin, Sam Bankman-Fried, Senator Elizabeth Warren, AI and ChatGPT and yes, you’ll be asked “prediction” or “guarantee” questions. Remember, responding to questions is a separate skill and you need to learn the intricacies.

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The Tactful and Tactical Way to Answer Difficult Questions

Here’s a quick lesson to give you an idea of the usefulness and power of learning how to handle tough questions.

Expect prediction and guarantee questions. In my business we call them “formula questions.” That is, “What’s your prediction about (fill in the blank): how many more banks will fail? Will the Fed and Treasury keep bailing out uninsured deposits?

You don’t want to make predictions about these topics. Acknowledge the question, but say, “I don’t have a crystal ball.” Make a prediction that goes back to a key topic in your talking points.

Examples: “I predict that we’ll be having many conversations with our customers to help them assess their (fill in the blank.) Same thing with the guarantee question. “Can you guarantee (fill in the blank) that commercial real estate will bounce back?” Acknowledge: “I hope so/wish I could/don’t have a crystal ball” and then repeat the words, “But I can guarantee that we’re going to have a very busy year.”

At the end of Q&A, reprise your talking point about working together and your commitment to being a good citizen.

Read more: SVB Post-Mortem: Communications Lessons Amid the Collapse

Remember that Every Audience is More than You See

In summary, you build public confidence and trust by reaching out, then showing up and talking about all the things you would have liked to have a chance to talk about if all the parade of horribles wasn’t going on.

Influence Beyond What You See:

Remember, today, even an audience of only 20 people is really an audience of 20 networks — actual and on social media.

If you know how to use the right techniques during your 15 minutes of “who we are and what we’re doing” and you stay around and take pictures with each of your 20 attendees, you enlist each of their networks.

I’ve been asked, is there any way to get ahead of the curve here, rather than being constantly reactive? The answer as outlined above is to get busy and get out there.

You should have been doing this all along. But what matters more at the moment is getting started — now.

About the author:

Before founding Spaeth Communications in 1987, Merrie Spaeth was a producer for ABC’s 20/20 and a speechwriter for William S. Paley, the founder and chairman of CBS. She also served as director of public affairs for the Federal Trade Commission and director of media relations at the White House in the Reagan Administration. Her firm works extensively with banks and credit unions of all sizes as well as with state bankers associations.

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