For Nathan Muniz, government relations and public relations manager at PSECU, the continued vitality of the credit union industry rests in activism and the legislative process.
“Credit unions face so many challenges and pressures, whether it’s marketing, loan growth or membership growth,” said Muniz. “We need the playing field to be as favorable to us as possible and legislative and regulatory involvement is never going away. I’d much rather we have a seat at the table than be told what we can and cannot do.”
That passion and energy for the legislative and political involvement of credit unions regardless of size has been why his transition from the work he was doing on Capitol Hill to his current role at Harrisburg, Pa.-based, $3.7 billion asset PSECU has been so smooth.
“I’d moved back to Pennsylvania, and there was an opening at PSECU,” said Muniz. “I was familiar with President Greg Smith and the major issues at the time of taxation, CURIA and the fact that credit unions are not for profit, it seemed like an easy jump. I don’t think it’s any secret that there’s a bit of a generational gap within the industry, but we need to start getting the younger generation prepared to take the reins. This is a key function and the next generation should be exposed to it now, and they’ll become more effective as they have more exposure to it.”
He added he’d like to see more credit union staffers be a part of CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference beyond directors, CEOs and senior management.
“It is great to see a couple thousand people every year at the GAC because we need to be more active, but I’d love to make it more part of the culture where not only employees are involved but the members too.”
Recognizing that there’s strength in numbers and that while PACs generally do well credit unions will never be able to match banks or other opponents dollar for dollar, Muniz said credit unions can take a different approach and have overlooked tapping one of its most valuable assets, their members.
“We need to look to be innovative and maybe buck some longstanding industry trends. For far too long there has been a separation between those we represent and members of Congress,” said Muniz. “Members understand a lot more than some credit union staffers may think they do. I know the concerns are that members may say something incorrect or go rogue, but the fact is members of Congress want to meet their constituents.”
When PSECU sent a mass email to members asking them to contact their legislators about the Dodd-Frank bill and Durbin amendment, members proved to not only be thankful for the information but were more than happy to help their credit union. While impressed by the large numbers generated by the campaign, Muniz thought more could be done as form emails and postcards are not the most effective way to influence legislators.
“It is the embodiment of this ownership society to own and have stake in the financial well being of their credit union and involvement of members is an extension of that,” said Muniz. “We’ve identified a group of members about 500, and we’re in the process of sending surveys to find out their level of interest in joining this network. We want to find out why they sent the email, why they want to be part of the PSECU story? Imagine if members who have these fantastic stories of how PSECU helped them were to relay them to Congress.”
To help strike a balance, Muniz has been developing a grassroots network of politically active PSECU members. With an eye on regular communication with this group of members and education of issues, the membership would also be segmented by congressional district with information specific to their congressman communicated when applicable. Plans are underway to also have a smaller group of key contacts that will be communicated with more frequently as a more engaged type of ambassador group.
“Not all members want to hear about legislative issues, and some have very negative view of government in general. So why not identify and meet with those who really have an interest on a regular basis. It wouldn’t be directing them to articles posted on the Web but share a real dialogue about how this legislation will affect their credit union and hopefully cultivate them to be advocates for the credit union,” said Muniz. “The next logical step would be to have these members actually do a congressional visit. What we want to do is turn them into key influential contacts, and we also see it as a relationship tool. What we’ve found is those who participated in all three of our interchange campaigns were highly loyal members with many services at the credit union. They’re already engaged so this would be a supplement.”
He said the creating an infrastructure is key.
“Where some organizations make the mistake is playing catch up. By the time something hits the news if you don’t already have an infrastructure in place then you’re too late,” said Muniz.
“We saw a little of that with the interchange. The retailers were hammering away on this for eight years building momentum. Don’t get me wrong, I think the industry as a whole did a great job from June to July to move the Fed a little more toward our position," Muniz said, "but I maintain it shouldn’t have gotten there in the first place. I don’t think we were prepared to motivate our employees or membership to stop it in it tracks so essentially we were playing catch up.”
He added that credit unions should be monitoring local, state and federal legislation and be in constant communication with members and employees about the issues so they are always ready to mobilize.
“If we don’t maintain an infrastructure then we are starting from scratch every time,” said Muniz. “It’s how we had done things in the past here, and we realized that scrambling every time there’s an issue is simply not efficient, so let’s see if we can have a group of go-to people ready when we need them and, if willing to send a message.”
It’s a work in progress, that has resulted in a mindset shift for members and employees alike.
“I think it’s important if you go out with something like this call to action that employees be just as engaged because members will have questions,” said Muniz. “By bringing them into the fold and making them a part of it they feel more invested in their job and what they do for the credit union. We follow up with our employees and give them an update on what happened with a particular campaign or Hike the Hill, and our CEO holds quarterly employee meetings where he gives updates on legislative issues we’re watching and why. It helps foster an environment of cooperation and engagement.”
He added that he takes a comprehensive overview approach not just the hot button issues.
“So many different regulations can affect businesses in general, so we’re lucky we’re large enough to devote staff to that. But even if a credit union has one person that keeps an eye on things and has contact with their state association or attends the GAC aside from senior management, it can only benefit credit unions as a whole,” said Muniz. n