It's a situation that has become depressingly familiar for big banks. A negative story makes the rounds on the internet and quickly turns viral, eventually swamping the institution with tweets, Facebook posts and phone calls.

But it was a relatively small bank, the $5.2 billion-asset Lakeland Bank in Oak Ridge, N.J., that found itself in that position on Monday, after a former bank executive said she resigned because a top House Republican targeted her in a letter to a member of the institution's board of directors. The bank is a unit of Lakeland Bancorp.

The accusations, initially aired in an article by W-NYC 93.9 FM public radio, gained traction Monday as it was echoed on liberal-leaning websites and quickly blossomed into a political and social media firestorm for the bank. A Facebook post by the institution, which largely skirted the issues involved, was deluged with dozens — and then hundreds — of comments, the vast majority of which were calling for a boycott of the institution.

"Do you understand the speed and power of social media?" Mike O'Brien of Bloomfield, N.J., wrote on Facebook. "Do you understand that your brand is being destroyed, right now, today, and that you have maybe five hours to get in front of this thing? Do you think that this kind of stuffy corporate legalese is going to put out the fire? Get serious."

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., wrote to a member of Lakeland Bank's board of directors and told him that an employee was a "ringleader" in an effort to defeat him in the next election. Bloomberg News

The episode demonstrates the alarming speed at which bad news can swamp a financial institution, even small banks and credit unions that generally aren't targeted by activists or political provocateurs.

At issue are claims by Saily Avelenda, a former senior vice and assistant general counsel at Lakeland, who said that she was pressured to leave after Joseph P. O'Dowd, a board member, received a letter from Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. The letter, which was posted by W-NYC, is primarily a form-letter plea for fundraising, but includes a handwritten note from Frelinghuysen that accuses a bank employee of being a "ringleader" of NJ 11th for Change, a local political group that is opposing the congressman.

“Needless to say, that did cause some issues at work that were difficult to overcome,” Avelenda told the radio station.

In response, the bank posted a two-paragraph response that did not confirm whether Avelenda had worked at the bank.

"We recently received communications from members of our communities and customers concerning a news report involving an individual who identified herself as a former employee and noted her outside civic involvements," the bank posted on Facebook. "Lakeland Bank does not comment publicly on the status of our current or former employees."

It then emphasized that its employees have the right to political expression. The bank said its code of ethics "specifically provides that it is the philosophy of Lakeland Bank to promote our employees' full awareness and interest in civic and political responsibility such that each employee has the opportunity to support community activities or the political process in the manner that she or he desires."

But the response appeared only to inflame the public, which responded with hundreds of comments taking the bank to task. "Shame on you," "Get out" and "Move your money" were common themes in the responses.

Thomas J. Shara, the bank's president and CEO, did not return a call and email seeking comment. Frelinghuysen, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and O'Dowd also did not return calls seeking comment.

Frank Eliason, a partner at the consulting firm BrainTrust Partners and a former head of global social media at Citigroup, said the bank's response invited more questions and criticism.

"The juicy story is a House Republican forced a bank employee out, and that taps into social media anger," Eliason said. "This is one of the problems banks have in general, which is that they are not really viewed as being one with society, and it plays into the views that people have of the GOP and the banking world generally that they are 'in' with politicians."

Jennifer Abernethy, president of Socially Delivered, a global social media management firm, said "the message Lakeland is getting linked to is" President Trump "and for consumers to get their money out of there — it doesn't look good."

The bank does not appear to have a Twitter handle, which likely was another strike against it.

"Right now people are buzzing about them on Twitter, and they're not there," Abernethy said. "The subliminal message that sends is we don't care, we're not up to speed and they're not modern enough to partake of the conversation."

Getting caught in a social media brouhaha can be particularly tricky because of the politically charged nature of public discourse these days.

"No matter what you write or say, you're going to offend 50% of your customers," Abernethy said. "Staying silent is the worst thing to do. They need to let everyone know that they are working with the utmost integrity and ethics to resolve this situation."

But Eliason said that the bank may have inadvertently caused more problems by describing its ethics policy as one that does not limit the political activity of employees.

"There are multitudes of problems, because they are getting into employment law and a situation where an employee is using freedom of speech," Eliason said.

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