U.S. Senate FCU Lesson: Speed Is of the Essence in PR Crisis
The importance of staying true to one’s brand, was recently made painfully clear with the fallout from U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union’s targeted loan ad featuring a buxom blonde’s cleavage.
The direct mailing piece represented a small sliver of the $563 million credit union’s yearlong targeted “Got Big Plans?” campaign to build awareness of the variety of loans available and that the Alexandria, Va., credit union–which has offices in the Senate Hart Office Building and the Government Accountability Office–stands ready to “help with all that life dishes out.”
Within two days, it generated some negative national media attention, a petition and resulted in a formal apology sent to Roll Call that was posted on the credit union’s website and emailed to those members who received the ad.
According to marketing and public relations experts, beyond the choice of the image used, the silence and waiting was a mistake.
“PR crisis management needs to happen in a matter of minutes not days,” said Sue Woodard, president of Credit Union Toolbox. “While I believe credit unions should think out of the box, and try different types of ads, this was a risky ad, and they should have pre-empted the reaction they got. If they really did it for media attention, and knew how people would feel about it, an apology letter should have been typed, approved and ready to go before the first ad ever went to print or broadcast. That’s the first step to any campaign that might provoke such a negative reaction.”
Matt Hodson, marketing director for HealthCare Credit Union in Salt Lake City, added that in such situations, it is beneficial to have a strong monitoring program in place.
“When The Huffington Post piece came out, they really could have started there. Seeing the backlash from a major publication like that can be very detrimental to the credit union as evidenced by the petition,” said Hodson. “With a simple Google Alert in place, they could have caught this quickly. Possibly even quicker with a search of Twitter. In a PR crisis such as this, they needed to act fast. With the online and social media world, they need to show transparency. In your social media strategy, you need to have a plan of action in case anything like this happens as it can devastate your goodwill.
"More than anything, they need to know how to respond to such articles. There’s a great graphic that the Air Force has put out on their process of responding to online articles that I share with credit unions. This is a great place to start and is a stepping stone for those that have issues such as this.”
He said the next step credit unions need to take should be setting up a social media/online monitoring system to find such issues before they get larger.
“Hopefully, more credit unions will see the need to monitor their mentions online and work through issues like this, should they arise,” said Hodson.
Woodard suggested testing the ad prior to release might have also prevented the issue entirely.
“Was a focus group organized? Even showing the potential ad to every few members that walk in to a branch could have given the credit union some vital feedback,” said Woodard.
Bryce Roth, chief chatter yak at marketing CUSO Chatter Yak agreed that additional research would have been helpful.
“I am all about pushing the envelope. For the most part, I feel credit unions are too often satisfied with the space we already occupy. We need to get the message out to the common civilian, but perhaps we should practice more caution or partake in more research before we foray into the realm of sex sells,” said Roth. “I in no way mean to discourage other credit unions from being progressive. While I feel this campaign was essentially effective in getting massive public exposure, do the benefits outweigh the costs in and efforts when it boils down to time and money spent on PR actions?”
For those credit unions still afraid of members saying negative things on Twitter or Facebook, she added they may already be doing it whether the credit union has a Facebook or Twitter account or not.
“It’s becoming more and more important to not only to respond quickly but to be out there saying the right things,” said Woodard. “I’d like to see marketers step out of the box a little more and ask themselves how they could keep communications with members interesting.... Credit unions need to ask themselves, where are my members? How can I be reaching them? What can I say to them to get a conversation going?
"We need to be proactive about engaging our members. If your brand is relevant, if you’re communicating with members on a regular basis, you’ll build awareness simply by communicating often enough. The thing marketers need to ask themselves is, what are my members concerned about? What’s on their mind? It may not even be financial, but if members are thinking about it and you can provide the information they want, you’ll be engaging members while building awareness.”