Banks are stepping up their public relations efforts to calm customers' fears about year-2000 conversions.

Increased correspondence with customers, employee education, and even television appearances are among the tactics bankers at Bank Administration Institute's Y2K conference said they were using. The conference was held late last month in Orlando.

"We have been very proactive," said W. Harrison Vail, president and chief executive officer of Three Rivers Bank in Monroeville, Pa. "We want to make the point that the safest place for people to keep their money is in the bank. Why? Because we're insured by the FDIC."

Mr. Vail recently appeared on a local television talk show to tell how his bank was preparing for the calendar change. He has also organized seminars for small-business and nonprofit customers, and he plans to meet with employees at the bank's 23 offices.

In a consumer survey by Synergistics Research Corp., 80% of respondents said they had at least one serious concern about the year-2000 issue, but only about 14% said they were "very concerned."

Topping the list of fears was that bank security systems would fail, allowing unauthorized access to personal financial records. Close to half believed the economy could be seriously affected. One third believed the stock market could decline severely.

Frederick E. Talbott, a professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, urged bankers to act aggressively. According to a survey he conducted with a fellow professor, Robert W. Blanning, consumers' confidence in banks' ability to manage year- 2000-related problems is "razor thin." Bankers must act in advance to generate trust and prevent panic, he said.

In a survey of 40 banks, the Vanderbilt professors found that their customers are indifferent of them to resolve the glitches. But in a focus- group interview, bankers said that customers do care and are not sure banks can be trusted. Customers most dread the hassle of trying to correct year- 2000 errors.

Coastal Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C., has kept customers informed of its progress through newsletters and its Web site. This year it plans to conduct year-2000 seminars, said James E. Price, vice president of information systems.

"There is a lot of scare about cash and liquidity," he said.

What worries him most is "misinformation in the news media. We can circumvent a lot of bad information if we can get our message out," he said.

Anne M. Moore, president of Atlanta-based Synergistics Research, said, "Intensive media attention could easily tilt this fragile balance, causing consumers to be confused and anxious regarding Y2K and its impact on daily financial activity. A number of scenarios are possible, including changes in the use of cash, checks, and cards."

Norman Morrison, senior vice president and general auditor at TCF Financial Corp. of Minneapolis, said he is concerned about "sensationalism."

So far, he said, there has been surprisingly little feedback from the thrift company's "Joe lunch-bucket customers."

All the same, Mr. Morrison said, he would not like to see employees caught off guard, like "deer in the headlights," and "create all kinds of problems."

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