Reverse Media Relations, Reverse Hirings, Reverse Thinking

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Unbeknownst to all those who were sitting in the Hilton Hotel at the time, at precisely the same moment CUES' Marketing, Operations & Technology Conference was putting on a session in New Orleans on "Building A Credible Image With The Media," 928 miles to the north something of a reverse case study was in progress.

As is reported on page 1 of this issue, and as The Credit Union Journal once again was the first to report online at www.cujournal.com, U.S. Central's ability to conduct ACH transactions was in full meltdown for two days last week. Other corporates that process through U.S. Central were fielding phone calls from frustrated CEOs demanding answers. They weren't getting them. In a twist of the standard procedure in which reporters call sources for information, those sources were calling and e-mailing The Credit Union Journal asking what we could tell them.

One CEO called the situation a "mess." Another said one member was questioning the very stability of his credit union. Yet another claimed his credit union was being "stonewalled with fake deadlines" for resolution of the problem. The Journal's Lisa Freeman began seeking comment around 10 a.m. EDT last Tuesday; she didn't get a return call until 3:30 in the afternoon confirming the problem, and wasn't able to interview anyone until 5:30 p.m. Given the seriousness of the situation, we don't dispute that "everyone is in meetings" as we were told. But taking 10 minutes out of that meeting to speak to a reporter could have gone a long way to damp the yelling from credit unions. The Journal's website is heavily trafficked; a response from U.S. Central-even one simply acknowledging the problem-would have made a big contribution toward another conference session, "Using the Media to Create a Credible Image with Members."

And speaking of dealing with the press... The Utah League of Credit Unions has reached outside the insular credit union community for its new spokesperson, whom it has described as an "entertainer" who "brings creative appeal to the credit union movement." It's unlikely that any league representative spends as much time working with state media or has as critical a role to play as does the point-person in Utah, where the state's bankers are so well-connected politically that at times they all but are the legislature. The state's bankers have managed to wear down the former league CEO and get all the large credit unions to go federal.

Stepping into that is new Communications Director Bob Ahlander, an admitted "greenie" to the "credit union world." Ahlander's background is in the entertainment industry (in college he founded "Vocal Point," an a cappella group at Brigham Young's School of Music that is still going), and has been a production/tour manager for a number of shows and produced the soundtrack album for the movie "God's Army" (which should come in handy, since that's what Zion's Bank seems to consider itself). It was while in the entertainment business that Ahlander met ULCU's new CEO, Scott Simpson, who brought him aboard.

Ahlander said his efforts in the first five weeks on the job have been focused on getting to know about credit unions and preparing a major PR/advertising campaign the league plans to roll out later this year and into 2005. "We don't want to go in with aggressive banker attacks, we want to start softer," he said. "We want to talk to the people of Utah about why credit unions are important." The ULCU will do the talking through mass media. So how does an entertainment background translate into credit unions (which, truth be told, are often better than any reality show)?

"The one thing I understand is how to connect with audiences and groups of people," explained Ahlander. "When you make that connection you can move them to action." Those groups of people, he added, include the league's member credit unions. "A big concern is internal PR," he noted. And he clarified that the league did not hire him because his background includes a BA in anthropology and that might mean better communication with some board members.

Finally, back to the CUES meeting. During one lunch, discussion at the table returned to the debate at CUNA's GAC between the ABA's chairman, Ken Fergeson, and Jim Blaine, CEO of State Employees CU. Blaine has since been blasted by some within credit unions for a performance that any neutral observer would have said was clearly won by Blaine. But the fact it was still being discussed months later at a CU meeting speaks to the very nature of credit unions and credit union folks.

Credit unions are the "polite society" of financial services, which is the "movement's" strength. But the credit union reaction to the debate seems to be that Blaine wasn't nice to "that man," so much so that CUNA CEO Dan Mica later called his counterpart at the ABA to apologize. Yes, Blaine shouldn't have made the joke about the brothel, not because of political correctness but jokes detracted from the substance. And, yes, there were some other points he might have refuted better. But those same CU critics seem to be forgetting that "that man" wants every one of them added to the unemployment stats, and, ideally, the only notice of credit unions in Washington to be a brief mention in the American History Museum.

There's nothing to apologize for. Were the situation reversed and a credit union exec eviscerated on stage by a banker at an ABA meeting, the banker would be Man of the Year. Every year. Banks don't play nice. Besides, I thought they wanted a level playing field.

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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