In "Star Trek," every student at Starfleet Academy must take the Kobayashi Maru test, a no-win scenario designed to evaluate how they react under pressure. Banks have their own version of this test: social media.
In a time of crisis, banks are challenged to communicate to irate and frustrated customers over Twitter, Facebook and blogs. And in most cases, the banks don't win — customers, like enraged Klingons, grow more hostile with each unsatisfying tweet they see.
PNC Financial Services Group Inc. faced this issue last week, when it suffered a partial website outage for some customers of its Virtual Wallet account. PNC posted a message on Twitter warning customers of slowness on its website, and a reporter asked over Twitter for the cause of the problems.
In a public reply over Twitter, PNC said the slowness was due to "reported online banking delays," an answer that did not sit well with at least one of its other Twitter followers.
"Well that's a nice non-answer... and a tautology," Twitter user @maco_nix wrote. "'Why's it slow?' 'It's slow because it's slow' *headdesk*"
From PNC's perspective, its customers' frustration with its response may have been unavoidable.
"As a heavily regulated business, I'm sure you can understand that we are very careful about what we say," said Fred Solomon, a PNC spokesman, in a phone interview after PNC resolved its website issues.
PNC "is very attuned to risk management," he says. "I understand that the culture of social media is very fast, but banks are very careful."
Over Twitter, PNC acknowledged the problem and apologized for it, but the bank said little else. Even over the phone, call center representatives were not giving out details such as the cause of the outage, the specifics of what was affected and the estimated time of resolution, Solomon said.
It doesn't have to be this way, says Citigroup Inc.'s social media guru, Frank Eliason.
"I don't think these things are regulatory concerns," he says. "The walls are not going to come crashing down because you talked about an outage."
Citi had to deal with the same issue in early February, and during its online banking outage it provided an estimate for when service would be restored.
"You have to be able to tell them what's going on as best as you can," Eliason says. "You have to do it in a way that provides enough detail … in this new world order."
Citi hired Eliason, who previously worked for Comcast Corp., in August 2010. By January 2011, Citi hired two social media lawyers. The lawyers help Citi provide immediate responses to outages and other crises.
"It used to be a lengthy approval process for a lot of the service-type tweets," Eliason says. Today, Citi has a playbook that it refers to in any situation. If its answer is not in the playbook, a bank employee can call one of the social media lawyers and get an approval within minutes, he says. After each crisis, his team's members compare notes and try to learn from their experience.