The NCUA needed to reassure a worried public.
The financial crisis and recession had increased uncertainty about the safety of financial institutions. In addition, credit unions are generally less visible than banks. On top of that, the problems facing corporate credit unions had confused people who didn't know the difference between corporate and natural person credit unions.
However, the agency had to walk a fine line.
As a regulator, it saw its job as ensuring that people knew about its role in protecting the safety and soundness of credit unions and as the primary insurer of credit unions.
The result: a $1.6 million multimedia campaign with personal finance specialist Suze Orman.
"NCUA insures the deposits that you put into a credit union up to $250,000 per account. The same amount FDIC insures at banks. And did you know a new law makes this coverage limit permanent?" Orman said in one of the public service advertisements.
NCUA Chairman Debbie Matz said the campaign originated when she and other agency officials realized that the recession "presents an opportunity for NCUA to educate and inform all consumers, not just credit union members, about the security of NCUA insurance. This message is important, and having such a highly visible and credible financial expert as Suze Orman makes this campaign unique."
The agency's point person on the project was John McKechnie, the NCUA's director of public and congressional affairs, who worked with Porter Novelli, a Washington public relations and advertising agency. Jessica Vogel, staff assistant to NCUA Board Member Gigi Hyland, worked on expanding the agency's educational outreach efforts on social media.
McKechnie said Orman, who previously did public service announcements for the FDIC on deposit insurance, was an obvious choice because she has extolled the virtues of credit unions on her CNBC television program and in speeches.
"She reached out to us to talk about deposit insurance, and given her visibility, we thought she would be a natural fit for the advertising campaign," he said.
He said the ads are a follow up to a similar, more limited campaign the agency embarked on last year featuring personal finance columnist Jane Bryant Quinn.
In addition to the public service television announcements, which are available in 30-second or 60-second formats, the agency sent out news releases to media outlets noting that credit union accounts are insured up to $250,000. Many of those outlets-in market sizes ranging from Fall River, Mass., to Baltimore-posted the releases on their websites.
McKechnie said in designing the advertising campaign, the agency didn't want to be seen as boosting credit unions at the expense of other depository institutions. He also noted that Orman was adamant that she not be seen as promoting a specific credit union or encouraging consumers to use credit unions rather than banks.
Because of that, credit unions cannot put links to the ads on their websites.
During the making of the advertisements, the agency included a behind-the-scenes account on its Twitter feed.
In addition to the advertisements, Matz did extensive radio and newspaper interviews, including such outlets as The Wall Street Journal Radio Network and KCBS Radio in Los Angeles.
Lauren Feldman, an assistant professor of communications at American University, said this kind of advertising campaign is often effective at achieving its goals.
"They are good at raising awareness, assuming you can get people to pay attention. And having a celebrity like Suze Orman will help capture their attention," Feldman said. She noted that when dealing with financial issues, which the public sometimes sees as complicated and scary, the key is to convey the message in comprehensible terms. The goal is to keep the message simple and not overburden the public.
Her fellow American University assistant professor, Maria Ivancin, who used to be a top executive of an advertising/public relations firm and has helped the government design education campaigns, said relying on public service announcements can be a mixed blessing.
"You are at the mercy of the television stations about whether they decide to give you the air time, but when the ads actually run, it is a great way to get the message out without spending money to buy the time," she said.
Media strategists at CUNA and NAFCU said the NCUA campaign dovetails nicely with their efforts to raise the public's awareness of credit unions.
CUNA Vice President Pat Keefe said the campaign comes at a great time, given recent survey results that show credit unions to have high favorability ratings. He said that in addition to media appearances by association officials promoting credit unions, CUNA in conjunction with the leagues is developing a consumer website that they hope will be an anchor for local campaigns.
NAFCU Public Relations Manager Patty Briotta said her association has created national ads and statement inserts that credit unions can customize to meet their needs.
"The infrastructure of credit unions, with their unique fields of membership and the presences of very few national credit unions, doesn't necessarily lend itself to a national branding campaign. But the key to our efforts is to create a bigger credit union awareness across the board," she said.