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Credit unions and the multitude of state and national organizations that serve them do a lot of things right. Assigning high priority to professional public relations programs is not one of them. As a result, the credit union industry is missing countless golden opportunities to put their collective best foot forward at a time when it is most needed. Examples of where credit unions and CU groups missed excellent public relations opportunities are everywhere. And they are multiplying. What makes this sad situation worse is that credit unions in general are doing so many newsworthy things which if given exposure would go a long way in advancing the cause of the entire CU industry. On the other side of the ledger, bad things also happen in credit union land such as armed robberies, natural disasters, embezzlements, banker attacks, and CEO dismissals for cause. It is at times like these that public relations needs to play a crucial role. Yet credit unions often fall short. Those responsible for handling crisis PR often can’t be immediately reached, try to stonewall the media seeking facts not spin, or don’t have the experience or authority to speak on behalf of their organization. Observers are left to jump to their own conclusions which are frequently nowhere near reality. One obvious reason for this PR ineptness in the credit union industry is the lack of understanding of what public relations really is. But also how it can and should work, who should set PR policy, and who should be charged with the responsibility of implementing it. Even national credit union organizations at times don’t seem to have a good handle on public relations or give it high priority. CUNA, for example, at times seems so obsessed with internal communication (a.k.a. talking to yourself) that getting the word out to the outside world almost seems to be an afterthought. Although CUNA has a good-sized, full-time public relations staff, like in so many other CU groups and in credit unions themselves, these staffers are routinely loaded down with non-PR responsibilities. CUNA’s top public relations executive, for example, has major programming responsibility for that group’s Annual Governmental Affairs Conference. What has a GAC put on for credit union people have to do with PR? Public relations staffers’ time would be better spent trying to work with the trade press and mainstream media across the board before a crisis, not after. A letter to the editor attempting to set the record straight after a damaging piece appears say in USA Today is not nearly effective as a major pro-credit union piece in the first place. Even more basic, those charged with an organization’s public relations function need to be developing and maintaining media contacts. They should constantly be trying to educate editors and reporters before they ever sit down at their computers to write about credit unions, not after. Unfortunately, when there is a reason to contact the media, some full-time PR staffers don’t even know who to call, or to whom to send a timely release. Many credit union media lists are woefully outdated. Just ask the editorial staff of Credit Union Times. Sometimes things happen that have lots of public relations implications over which PR staffers have little or no control. A current example is the CUNA Mutual Group which is experiencing a series of events right now ranging from union problems and a high-profile staff arrest, to a series of executive changes and board defections. The organization continues to get lots of bad press regarding their ongoing dispute with the labor union representing a large number of CUNA Mutual employees. Granted, it is extremely difficult for any employer to communicate with almost anyone during labor unrest, but they must do so. Otherwise, the general public and opinion leaders, especially in Madison, Wisconsin, start to get a changed perception of that capital city’s largest private employer. The longer it takes to get a new signed labor agreement, the more the danger of CMG’s once pristine reputation getting further tarnished. The CUNA Mutual union situation is one of many examples where bad PR for one group rubs off on others such as credit unions in the surrounding area. Then there is the harm caused to CUNA Mutual itself with its customers and the various publics important to the organization. Directly related, less-than-favorable public relations resulted when a substantial number of union employees took steps to spin off from the main union group to form their own bargaining unit. Some observers have already speculated that this is only the first step that could eventually lead to an attempt at some partial union decertification, still another potential PR land mine. And then there is the well-publicized and controversial recent firing of long-time CMG CEO Mike Kitchen. And just recently, the identity fraud arrest of on of CUNA Mutual’s employees, ironically a veteran public relations department employee. How ironic that an individual charged with putting his employer in a good light instead causes a major PR problem. Could it be that he didn’t have enough to do? There are unfortunately other examples where CUNA Mutual’s full-time public relations staff should have had a stronger presence but didn’t. In fairness, maybe CMG’s management staff and/or its board put handcuffs on them? Does it also send a signal that at CMG where VP’s are a dime a dozen that the top PR staffer is an assistant vice president while at CUNA the comparable post rates an EVP title? Will new CUNA Mutual Group CEO Jeff Post, a non-credit union insurance industry veteran named days ago to immediately take over for Kitchen, show an awareness of the important role public relations can and must play? Maybe. A request by this publication to conduct the standard feel-good, get-acquainted interview with him was turned down flat on the flimsy excuse that he needed to get his feet wet first. Bad PR move. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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