Federal bank regulators are preparing to wage an all-out media assault on public fears about the year-2000 problem.
Beginning in August, head honchos from the four bank and thrift agencies will travel the country to meet with newspaper editorial boards, chat with television news anchors, and buttonhole reporters to tell them how well prepared banks are.
Shandwick International, an international public relations firm, is getting $65,000 to help the regulators hone a consistent and persuasive message.
Because banks themselves have done a third-rate job of communicating calm, the agency chiefs face a daunting task.
Just how ineffective banks have been was made clear by a recent Gallup Organization survey, for which the government ponied up $400,000.
Three out of every four adults polled in early March said their banks had not talked to them about the year-2000 problem. Gallup hypothesized that many adults simply missed the forgettable statement stuffers their banks had sent.
Gallup also asked people where they had heard about the year-2000 problem's implications for banks. The top sources were television and newspapers, at 36% and 32%, respectively. Banks, at 11%, were only the fifth-most mentioned information source.
"Banks need to pay attention to the source of information, how they're transmitting it to their customers, and be aware that ... their customers are not remembering it," said Calvin C. Jones, the Gallup survey's lead author.
"It just shows there is more that the banking industry can do," said Donna Gambrell, year-2000 communications manager at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Regulators have been exhorting financial institutions to reach out to their customers for over a year. In May 1998, they suggested setting up toll-free hot lines, holding seminars, and establishing Web sites to reassure account holders and prevent excessive cash withdrawals.
In February they provided banks with a list of specific facts to communicate to customers, including the status of the bank's testing efforts and contingency plans, and the reliability of federal deposit insurance.
But bank efforts have fallen far short.
Of the 2,650 adults surveyed by Gallup, 44% expected to lose access to their cash temporarily, 42% believed ATMs won't work, and 38% thought checks would probably bounce.
More alarming, 22% said the entire banking system would probably shut down, and another 16% were undecided.
Gallup did note an odd but encouraging trend in the survey data. Though people surveyed tended to expect the rest of society to panic, they themselves had relatively modest plans.
For example, though 47% of the 2,650 adults surveyed said some bank customers would drain their entire bank accounts, 44% said that they themselves would take out only enough cash to last several weeks or less.
Armed with those and other lessons from the Gallup survey, the banking agency chiefs hope to erase as much consumer doubt as possible about banks and the year-2000 date change.
They are well-positioned to do so. According to the survey, bank regulators follow only computer experts and bank managers as the most trusted sources of information on the issue.
A key problem they may encounter is getting the Katie Courics and tabloid editors of the world to listen to what is fundamentally a good story.
"If you're reporting that the plane is landing, sometimes that's a harder story to sell," said FDIC spokesman David Barr.