The wildfires in Florida have ignited a competition for good will between the two largest banking organizations in the state.
Through a barrage of press releases in recent days, NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp. have been hot on the trail of positive publicity for their efforts to fight the fires and aid those who suffered.
First Union arrived on the scene early, saying June 25 that it was contributing $200,000 to purchase airplane fuel for fire-fighters. The First Union announcement said that the North Carolina-based banking company was the "first corporate citizen" in Florida to ante up to fight the fires.
Charlotte, N.C.-based rival NationsBank followed with a July 2 declaration that it would give $100,000 to charitable organizations helping residents driven from their homes.
A day later First Union put out word that it was making special offers to consumers, such as free 90-day extensions on installment loans and reduced fees on certain new loans.
In case anyone missed the July 3 announcement, First Union re-released it July 6. The company also said it was sending a truck full of supplies from North Carolina to Florida to assist in disaster recovery.
Within hours of First Union's July 3 press release, NationsBank announced that it too was "committed to helping our neighbors." NationsBank said it was reducing interest rates and fees on car loans and home repair loans for fire victims. It also said current customers could increase or extend lines of credit to "help get through this difficult time."
George Owen, a NationsBank spokesman, said its efforts were motivated primarily by an unselfish desire to help the communities. He pointed out that a NationsBank contribution of $8,000 to feed displaced horses, dogs, and cats was not announced publicly. Doing good is seen as a way to build business, he said.
"We need to help those communities in order for us to do well," he said.
First Union spokeswoman Sandy Deem said positive public relations was merely "icing on the cake." The company is "seeking to let people know we care," she said.
Kenneth Thomas, a Florida-based consultant and frequent bank critic, said financial institutions are known to give back in times of trouble, but seeking publicity and pushing products as they do so is a bit unusual. He said the fierce competition between the North Carolina titans has been heated up by the Florida fires.
"It's not normal to bring in the PR people," Mr. Thomas said. "The banks are at the point now, especially NationsBank , where they feel they need to get credit for every little thing they're doing. They need positive PR."
NationsBank is seeking regulators' approval for a merger with BankAmerica Corp.
Doug Johnson, assistant director of the Florida Division of Banking, said the motivations are less important than the results.
"Obviously you wouldn't attribute their actions to complete altruism," Mr. Johnson said. "But this would be entirely consistent with past behavior where they've risen to the occasion in past disasters. This is what we expect from them."