WASHINGTON -- It's a new world.
Lately, even some marquee financial institutions have been absorbed by others, the stock market and home prices are in a free fall and Congress wants to increase its regulatory oversight over the financial services sector of the economy.
Talk about a public relations challenge for credit unions and banks.
Media strategists for the trade associations representing those industries say they are trying to calm the nerves of consumers and lawmakers while also extolling their own virtues.
"We've been emphasizing--in paid and earned media--the fact that credit unions are safe, sound and strong," said CUNA Senior Vice President of Communications Mark Wolff. "We've also been reminding people that credit unions are lending, but they are making responsible loans."
The American Bankers Association aimed to strike a balance. "It had been a long time since a bank failure, so we wanted to place the current problems that some banks were having in context. But we didn't want to cause concern among people who were not concerned," said John Hall, the association's senior vice president for public relations. CUNA has also worked behind the scenes to prepare three sample ads as well as talking points for credit union leagues and individual credit unions to use.
One of those ads features a man looking at a pink piggy bank with the headline: "During times like these, your money may seek reassurance.''
CUNA decided that a national advertising campaign would be too costly.
It was not, however, shy about getting its message out to national audiences. The association sent out 255 audio news releases that were picked up by about 200 radio stations and CUNA President/CEO Dan Mica did a radio tour and appeared on several network and cable television outlets.
NAFCU relied almost exclusively on earned media--a radio tour by President/CEO Fred Becker, audio news releases and pitches to print and broadcast outlets.
"Our goal was to reassure the public and be sure that people were reassured about the safety of financial services in general, and credit unions in particular," said NAFCU Senior Vice President of Communications Jay Morris.
During the congressional debate on the financial rescue bill, a The Wall Street Journal article featured NAFCU Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Dan Berger's lobbying efforts.
Both CUNA and NAFCU lobbied the White House to ensure that President Bush mentioned that most credit union accounts are federally insured. Bush failed to mention them during one of his first speeches during the economic crisis but did so in subsequent talks.
The ABA took a multipronged approach to getting its message out.
At the American Bankers' Association they did a limited national campaign, focusing on the generic well being of banks.
"Consumers care about the health of the industry, but they are more concerned about their own banks and the accounts there so we've been focusing on helping members with their customer base," Hall said.
In September, the ABA placed advertisements emphasizing banks' safety and soundness in USA Today and The Washington Post. They featured a lighthouse (symbolizing a bright spot during a dark time) and gave reasons why people should "take heart" about the soundness of the banking industry.
The association also prepared six sample advertisements for state associations and individual banks to customize and use.
Hall said his association fielded 450 media calls in September, compared with 200 on an average month. He also pointed out that some of their members took a proactive approach and divided up some of their big depositors among senior executives to reassure them that their deposits were insured.
Credit unions and banks both benefited from national advertising campaigns by their respective regulating agencies, the NCUA and the FDIC, about the safety of deposits at insured institutions.
The NCUA placed advertisements about share insurance in several newspapers and NCUA Chairman Michael E. Fryzel did several radio and television appearances.
The FDIC hired personal finance journalist Suze Orman as its spokesperson, and she appeared in advertisements focusing on the safety of all accounts at federally insured financial institutions, including credit unions.
These efforts to reassure the public are necessary, according to crisis communications specialist Jonathan Bernstein, because organizations in the financial services field are not always adept at handling difficult situations.
"Too often, banks and credit unions don't respond promptly and don't appear compassionate. Banks are not great communicators, though credit unions have better relationships with their individual members," said the Sierra Madre, California-based consultant. "The problem is many credit unions are so small that they don't invest in crisis preparedness. And in the absence of preparedness you are winging it and winging it is not a crisis communications plan."