The New PR – Communications In Marketing Financial Services

“Let me give you my golden rules bout PR,” Mr. X said to the young University Y-graduate joining his staff.

“Tell them nothing unless you absolutely have to. Never volunteer any idea about us and our business.”

“The only good news about our bank is no news”.

“The press… those flaky consumerists, the politicians, they are all out there to get us. They are the enemy. The less they know about us, the less likely they are to pick us.”

“What do we want to see in the newspapers? I will tell you. We want to see only the words we write in press releases. No more, no less. We want them to come to our new bank branch openings and take a picture of the boss and the mayor cutting the ribbon.”

“You do not need to know anything about banking in this job, my dear fellow.”

(James H. Donnelly, Leonard Berry, Thomas Thompson “Marketing Financial Services. A Strategic Vision”)

I could not disagree more. In this article I am going to deal with managing communications through planning and I will start by breaking down this theme into its component elements which are common facts:

1. Communications must be managed: structured, organized, given purpose and administered with measurable results in mind. Communications is part of an organization’s reaction to marketplace events: to changes in the prime rate and the like. At the same time, communications is an offensive weapon for developing new business, motivating bank people to sell, and creating positive organizational identity or “image” with customers, community opinion makers, and the financial organization’s staff. Usually not much of this happens; it must be made to happen. It must be managed on a continuing basis.

2. Good communications management is effected through soundly conceived and structured planning techniques. The company for example may desire to be regarded as a progressive, innovative, caring and community-oriented financial institution. Communications involves giving this idea a basement, pointing out the right direction and helping it run smoothly.

3. “Communications” is a more realistic label the “PR” – “Public Relations” or “Public Affairs”. Unfortunately, PR connotes dealing almost exclusively with the media? And particularly with the print media. From the point of view of too many {Mr. Xs} employed in this position that “bank PR” is passive if not reactive, cosmetic if not of questionable purpose, protective if not barrier creating, and selective in the sense that its major intention s to proclaim the good news loud and clear and to stonewall the bad news.

4. The Media remain important. But they are no more important to a financial institution in this day and age than consumer advocates, regulatory authorities, internals auditors, academics, financial analysts, community leadership groups, and so many other that are part of a growing army of ‘Publics” involved in making decisions that effect the performance of financial institutions worldwide.

“Banks today not only must be responsive to a growing galaxy of social issues…but also must be able to articulate their positions clearly, crisply and convincingly. Banks today, for example, must be ready to respond to press queries on equal employment practices, fair credit procedures, computer privacy and the like. They also have the opportunity to capitalize on these activities as a means of enhancing their image.”

-“Marketing Financial Services. A Strategic Vision”

“We have met the Enemy… and he is us.Today “Bank-house” is made of Glass”.

Today “bank-house” is made of glass. Financial institution managers operate under ever-closer scrutiny. Banking – the financial services business – lives in a house made of glass because of discontinuity and disruption. For these same reasons and also because their many publics are more questing, more demanding and less truthful – more insistent – bankers have become the “black hat boys”. Financial institution managers reside in marble mausoleums surrounded by myth and mystique.

Defensive strategies just won’t work anymore. The “credibility gap” that is at the heart of the financial industry’s image problem came about largely because for a passive PR position. The gap can be bridged and credibility substantially restored, but only through activist communications anchored.

There is another and well understood side of this coin. It is what people think about bankers individually, not the organizations that financial managers work for, but the managers as a class grouping. What people perceive about bankers affects their perceptions of the organization itself.

“Bankers are pictured in stereotypes as being rather tough, glass-eyed, insensitive, calculating types who wear black suits, sit at great mahogany desks. Instead, I can point out quickly a great many bankers who are outgoing, understanding, warm and generous fellows.” -Norwood W. “Red” Pope “American Banker” column.

Still, perceived images remain part of the “we are the enemy” syndrome complicating financial institution communications activities. There is a perception of what a banker is a more routine reality. The challenge that must always confront a communications manager – PR manager in bank – is dealing with both the perception surrounding an organization’s image and the perception surrounding the people who manage it. If the manager must work to debunk financial institution stereotypes as part of improving communications flows between the organization and its many publics, the concurrent task is to humanize management of the bank.

PR communicator in Bank

The financial institution communicator is the organization’s “eyes and ears” for “testing and sensing” the environment, for understanding the new value of the 21st clients’ needs and demands and transmitting them to management. More than this, the guiding principle is the communicator’s responsibility for assuring and actualizing management’s response to that.

In an era of change, deregulation, consumerism, the Public Relations professional must necessarily be a thorn in management’s side. The communicator has the specific job of being irritant, provoking honest in the interaction between bank and its public. He or She serves two masters: the communicator is an advocate of the institution clearly; but no less, the communicator is a customer advocate. He or She is the corporate hair-shirt person an ever nagging organizational conscience.

In this capacity, the Public Relations or communications professional cannot be an infrequent visitor to the executive suite. His assignment involves – speaking up, informing and counseling and this involves knowledge a much as knowledge of a bank industry. The why of it all, is the visible evidence that in the emerging future a financial institution’s real public image will have a bottom line to it – a measurable dollar line.

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