Trade Groups Brace for PR Nightmare In Advance of ABC Junket Broadcast
The high anxiety arose over negative fallout that could follow a network broadcast showing a group of CU managers and volunteers golfing and sunning on the beach at a Credit Union Executives Society conference held in the Caribbean earlier this month.
Both CUNA and CUES officials blasted the surreptitious filming and on-site interviewing by a network crew as "unethical and a case of ambush journalism" because the film crew "acted like vacationing tourists" at the CUES symposium held at a Marriott Hotel on the island of St. Kitts.
It was unclear when the CU segment might actually air as an investigative piece on any of three network's news shows, "20/20," "Nightline" or "ABC Evening News with Charles Gibson," but CUNA officials in Washington were preparing for an unflattering view of the industry-in other words, a PR nightmare.
In e-mails alerting state leagues to the broadcast, Dan Mica, CUNA's president/CEO, noted that ABC News did contact CUNA for an on-camera interview, but the offer was declined, maintaining that "anything said on camera could be edited and distorted to fit the report's biased and negative storyline."
In a series of talking points for confronting the negative feedback of CU executives frolicking on the beach while their CUs attempt to gain access to TARP funds, CUNA stressed that so far no CU has received TARP money "and we are not seeking a direct injection of TARP money."
The only TARP funds CUs are interested in would be as a "back-up" to the self-funded NCUSIF, according to CUNA officials. They added that "if it became necessary to tap TARP funds, something credit unions believe is highly unlikely, credit unions would then pay the funds back over time."
CUNA said the industry views TARP "as simply backup assistance for a narrow segment" of CUs that have suffered collateral damage in the current troubled economy.
In talking with ABC News, Mica emphasized the industry's overall health, pointing out also that the St. Kitts conference, according to CUES, had been booked three years in advance. Moreover, nearly half of the 160 participants "are board volunteers who used their own personal vacation time to attend."
Fred Johnson, president/CEO of CUES, said his staff felt hoodwinked by the ABC reporter and producer, who at the start of the conference "were dressed like tourists, casually asking the attendees about sightseeing and how they were spending the day." It was not until the final day of the conference, which ran Feb. 1-4, that they identified themselves as ABC staffers, said Johnson.
CUES officials had warned departing attendees in later e-mails they would likely get phone calls from ABC reporters when they returned home from the conference. "Most did not return reporters' phone calls, but several did and, based on what we know, the few who did speak out handled themselves very well," said Johnson.
Like other trade executives, Johnson lamented how the deep economic downturn and the negative publicity given to banking excesses has now portrayed favorite convention cities, like Las Vegas, in such a negative light and made them so vulnerable.
"I happen to agree with the mayor of Las Vegas when he criticized President Obama" for trashing Vegas trips by TARP recipients. Those comments, said Johnson, threaten to ruin convention and vacation business for Las Vegas, which relies on them for its economic well being.
Despite CUES and CUNA's concern over any St. Kitts fallout, a sampling of industry trade groups found no plans to cancel any major meeting in Las Vegas, at least, though the poor economy would hasten a larger decline in general convention attendance-and subsequent cutbacks- during 2009.
On that score, the Defense Credit Union Council confirmed that in light of economic conditions surrounding the corporate bailout and the potential hike in NCUA assessments, it has canceled one of its smaller meetings, the annual overseas sub council conference April 29-May 3 in Prague, Czech Republic.
While that conference draws around 40 executives representing military CUs with overseas branches, registrations "are ahead of last year" for DCUC's annual conference Aug. 16-18 in San Francisco, said Arty Arteaga, president/CEO.
And though initially CUNA was forecasting a 15% to 20% drop in attendance at its GAC conference meeting this week in Washington, the registration count has since improved and now closer to a 10% to 15% decline, said Mark Wolff, senior vice president of communications. Because of the U.S. Central bailout crisis and the NCUA assessment, CEOs now feel the urgency to be in Washington during this critical period, said Wolff.
One trade group, the Marketing Association of Credit Unions said in a statement its leadership has "decided to hang tough" and still hold its annual meeting May 27-29 at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio.
"It would be an opportunity to rebut some of the ABC News fallout over conferences in these tough economic times as ours," said Kent Lindeman, executive director. The San Antonio meeting, he said, does not go overboard "in cost or location and still offers valuable continuing education to CU marketers."
CU marketing strategist Jeff Pilcher, author of The Financial Brand online newsletter, summed it up this way for conference planners: "Forget Vegas, New York City, San Francisco or anywhere that the sun shines. Start thinking about towns in states like Kansas and North Dakota. In fact, you might even be able to score a couple of points by booking your next event in Detroit."
Regardless, he added, "You can't pick a destination that will immunize you from the press," but still the success of industry meetings is often tied to large turnouts, which make education opportunities so important.
"But from a brand strategy standpoint, going to an 'exotic, tropical, luxury resort' is a risk to your credit union's brand," concluded Pilcher.