Large banks may be making money again, but they still have a ways to go to win back consumers' trust. One poll shows 77 percent of Americans believe large financial institutions still have not done enough to make amends for their role in the financial crisis, and a majority of consumers surveyed recently by J.D. Power and Associates perceive banks as more profit-driven than customer-driven.
It's no wonder, then, that the industry is preparing to mount a massive public relations offensive. The Financial Services Roundtable, which represents 150 of the nation's largest financial firms, has reportedly hired APCO Worldwide to lead a new campaign slated to kick off later this year. Meanwhile, several large banks are planning to team up on a PR campaign of their own, according to news reports.
Image-polishing is already a major theme in bank marketing these days. Citibank, for example, has been running full-page ads-tagline: "We're building a new Citi"-in which it promises help to at-risk homeowners or consumers struggling with credit card debt. Many banks are also tying charitable giving into their marketing campaigns.
But PR professionals say a broad industry campaign is needed as well, and they have some simple advice forbanks going forward: Show more, tell less.
Paul Eagle, the vice president for financial services at Imre, a Baltimore communications firm, says that at the height of the crisis, banks built their messaging around strength and stabilitybecause people were concerned about the safety of their savings.
Now, though, he would advise banks to show "humility and empathy" and make clear that they understand the needs of Main Street. Their actions, he adds, should speak for themselves and don't necessarily need to be backed up by full-page ads touting how many home loans they've modified or how many small-business loans they made last month.
"PR is all about communicating your actions, but I would do the opposite," Eagle says. "It's not about communicating your actions, but what your actions communicate."
Barb Iverson, the president of the global financial services at Weber Shandwick, says bankers should especially be thinking "show, don't tell" when trying to reach policymakers in Washington. Instead of trying to wield influence through slick marketing campaigns, banks should be hyperfocused on meeting the needs of their communities-investing in neighborhoods, supporting charities, devoting resources to financial education-and letting the message "bubble up."
"Members of Congress are heavily influenced by what their constituents back home are saying," she says.
Eagle says the campaign should also lean on social media, including blogs, to "start conversations" with customers. Both Eagle and Iverson pointed to Bank of America as one bank that is doing an especially good job at using Twitter to respond to customer complaints and concerns.
"It's a monitoring device," Iverson says. "If you complain about your bank and the bank gets back to you in an hour, it shows someone is listening and it gives you a better feeling about your bank."
One thing Eagle would advise banks not to do is use social media to pitch products. "Once you do that," he says, "you've lost them.