Banks are ramping up public relations efforts to calm consumers panicked by the credit crisis — and to distinguish themselves from the string of big-name institutions that have gone out of business.
Raymond P. Davis, the chief executive officer of Umpqua Holdings Corp. in Portland, Ore., posted a letter to customers Monday on the $8.3 billion-asset company's Web site and at teller counters in its branches.
"Although the current environment is unlike anything we've seen in many years, it's important to remember that it won't last forever," Mr. Davis wrote. "And we will continue to operate our company as we have for five decades — as a community bank committed to serving the communities we serve with financial resources that help them grow."
This fall he plans to hold a number of presentations in hotel conference rooms and other venues in Umpqua's West Coast markets on how people can "navigate the economy."
Mariner Kemper, UMB Financial Corp.'s chairman and CEO, described the $9.2 billion-asset Kansas City, Mo., company as a place "you can turn to in these uncertain times" in a full-page newspaper ad.
"If you are concerned about the safety and soundness of our financial system, you are not alone," the ad read. "You can count on us — now, more than ever."
In a post-script, Mr. Kemper invited would-be customers of UMB to e-mail him directly.
Pam Blase, senior vice president of corporate communications for UMB, said the "tremendous" response from the ad's first run in daily papers in the markets it serves prompted the company to buy space in Central and Rocky Mountain editions of The Wall Street Journal.
Sue McClure, senior vice president of marketing at UMB, said the ad might help the company gain new customers and is a part of a broader campaign to make sure its current clients are aware of what is going on.
"People are hungry for information right now," she said. "Now is not a time to be invisible to our customers."
In addition to running the ad, Ms. McClure said, UMB is sending out informational e-mails and updating its Web site with more "robust" information. It also held a "Economic Insight" conference call Wednesday where some executives spent a half hour telling 300 customers their opinions about the economy, the federal bailout bill, and UMB's financial health.
On Monday the American Bankers Association ran full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington Post. The ads were designed to "help people understand that the banking industry is not the same thing as what's going on in the Wall Street banking industry," said Carol Caplan, a spokeswoman for the trade group. "The banking industry is solid, and your money is safe."
The Independent Community Bankers of America is providing generic press releases for member banks with tight marketing budgets. "We're giving our members the resources they need to let people know how community banks are different in this environment, so they aren't the ones people should be mad at," said Karen Tyson, a spokeswoman for the group.
Thad Woodard, the president and CEO of the North Carolina Bankers Association, said it is borrowing from the marketing strategy it used during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. On Thursday the trade group's Web site had this message: "There's No Safer Place to Have Your Money than in a Bank."
All these efforts follow a string of bombshells: the government's seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy filing; the American International Group Inc. bailout; Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.'s rushed deal to sell itself to Bank of America Corp.; the failure of Washington Mutual Inc. and the sale of its banking operation to JPMorgan Chase & Co.; and the forced sale of Wachovia Corp.'s banking operation to Citigroup Inc.
All those shocks are being absorbed as the Bush administration presses Congress to unstick credit markets by authorizing the government to buy up to $700 billion of troubled assets. (The Senate approved the idea Wednesday; it will be back before the House today.)
JPMorgan Chase is running an ad to reassure Wamu's customers. The ad, written from Wamu's perspective, is titled, "Wamu, now part of Chase" and explains why the Seattle company likes the new "safe and secure" arrangement. "We love Chase. And not just because they have a trillion dollars."
Jason Busch, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Bankers Association, said in an interview last week that the marketing blitz has emerged not just from fear, but also from anger. "People are very angry at all the players involved in this, because they don't want their taxes to increase as part of the bailout," Mr. Busch said.
The trade group, along with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, ran full-page ads in the state's two largest newspapers after IndyMac Bank failed in July. Mr. Busch said his group is now considering a radio, TV, and print blitz throughout the state.
The anger he warned about is finding its way on to the pages of national newspapers.
On Sept. 23, just days after the government bailout of AIG, a group called the Campaign for America's Future ran a full-page ad titled "Banksters Run Amok." The ad featured a fake extortion note with cut-out letters saying: "Give us $85 billion or the economy gets whacked." The ad also said: "It turns out that last week's emergency bailout of once-mighty AIG was chump change. Now Wall Street is extorting another $700 billion from the taxpayers to cover their losses."
Some bankers are voicing their own anger about the bailout.
This week the $300 million-asset Evergreen Federal Bank in Grants Pass, Ore., ran an ad in a local newspaper that said: "Evergreen Federal Bank does not need a taxpayer bailout! If other banks had run their bank like Evergreen Federal, there would be no need for the government to ask you to pay $700 billion! … If you want to do business with a bank that is not going to ask you to pay more taxes to bail them out, come to Evergreen Federal Bank."
Brady Adams, Evergreen's president and CEO, said he came up with the idea for the newspaper advertisement one night when he couldn't sleep because of concern about the bailout proposal, which he thinks may encourage some banks to take on more risk.
"I went back to the computer room and wrote the ad up out of frustration, anger, and fear," he said. "Not fear about what if we don't pass it, but fear about what brought us to it and what could happen if we do pass it."
Mr. Adams is of course mindful of the opportunities that exist in the current climate.
Evergreen's ad includes a copy of its most recent balance-sheet statement.
"If they are fearful about where they have their deposits, they can look at our statement," he said. Evergreen has picked up about $3 million in deposits from former customers of Washington Mutual, he said.