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Credit unions are receiving recognition more and more in the mainstream media. CUNA in particular made a big push in the last couple of years to establish the term credit union as a household word.More recently the financial crisis has bolstered the attention the general media pay to credit unions. But the old adage “any press is good press” does not hold water here-especially when there are such obvious misunderstandings about what credit unions are and how they function.Take the Dec. 9 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Rescue Plan Aims to Aid Some Large Credit Unions,” for example. Large credit unions? Not hardly. The article freely interchanges “large” for “corporate” several times. As you and I know, there’s a huge difference.The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t call the Federal Reserve banks “large banks,” nor would any competent business reporter. No, because they’re wholesale institutions with a very different mission.Credit unions must consider how to fix the common misunderstandings about the industry before members call up to find out if the so-called large credit unions are in trouble. Before pointing fingers at the trade associations for not working hard enough as publish relations advocates and the media for not taking the time to understand, though each deserves a share of the blame, take a look at your own shops.What does your credit union do to ensure members of the media truly understand what a credit union is and the important distinctions between credit unions and banks, even covertly? Each credit union has a responsibility to work with the press. No, not every credit union is going to have contacts at The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, and you shouldn’t.Consider your local area and relevant trade press as primary areas of responsibility. Have lunch with the editor of the gazette around the corner or ask for a meeting with a local radio station program producer or just call up the financial editor from a state or regional newspaper to make introductions. And, by trade press I don’t necessarily mean Credit Union Times. Get acquainted with your local business journals and look around your SEGs for media outlets. For example, if you have a lot of car salespeople in your field of membership, seek out the professional publications that they read and pitch a story about credit unions as auto lenders.Hiring a high-quality public relations professional on staff can work miracles. Personally, I think this person should be separate from marketing, but I realize many credit unions cannot afford both, so a clear distinction must be made in the responsibilities under each role.Marketing is paid for, PR is not. Marketing focuses on your message and only your message. When doing public relations work, don’t expect to be the only source in a news story; your goal is to present your credit union as arespectable resource for this and future news articles, not for promotion (though it really is just by getting a mention in an article your members and potential memberswill likely read).The biggest difference between marketing and public relations is who owns the ink. You can buy exactly what you want with advertising dollars, and it serves a definite purpose. Earning status as a reliable news source is entirely different.Not all of the stories may be positive and some of the questions might make you uncomfortable but participate and answer questions honestly. These situations are exactly why you proactively built a relationship in the first place. You need to tell the Acme Tribune, “Yes, our delinquencies are creeping upward. Here is how we plan to fix that.”If you don’t return the call just because things don’t look good, you don’t get that opportunity. The story will still run and the numbers will tell the story without the context you can provide. But again, I want to emphasize, always be honest and as open as possible. It will put you in a good light with the reporter and he or she will come back to you for other stories.Similar to marketing, PR work requires that you have a clear picture of your target audience. Find out the reporter who specifically covers the issues you’re interested in presenting, whether on the local economy, community activities or the real estate market in your area. Develop a rapport with him or her.Don’t send fluff press releases that only serve to dilute your message. Again, know your audience. No reporter is interested in kissy-faced press releases between vendors and clients. Credit Union Times’ readership wants to know why the credit union chose a particular vendor. How it will save time? Will it save money? Will it help bring in new members? What were the pros and cons weighed by the credit union? Our readers want to know: Could this make sense for my credit union? This type of information sharing is exactly in line with credit unions’ cooperative nature.A local paper might be more interested in how the service or technology will better serve that particular community and who will use it. The payoff comes when readers see that XYZ FCU is offering remote deposit capture and want to take advantage. At the same time, credit unions gain the opportunity to explain the credit union industry to the reporter.Credit unions are obviously smaller than their for-profit counterparts; they don’t have the marketing funds or the PR staff to compete. Every credit union, in the cooperative spirit of the industry, needs to pitch in to create a broader understanding of credit unions in the media and ultimately the general public.–Comments? E-mail [email protected]

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