When customers started asking questions about its year-2000 preparedness, Centinel Bank of Taos, N.M., took to the airwaves.

Centinel began running radio spots last month to explain how it will avoid the computer glitches associated with the calendar change after next year. The $80 million-asset bank invites customers to "come by, see what we are doing." It says Jan. 1, 2000, "will be just like any other day."

Rebeca Romero, assistant vice president and the voice heard on the radio, said the spots are effective in alleviating concerns. Since the spots began airing, year-2000 questions have not come up.

A growing number of community banks, in fact, are building public relations campaigns around the year-2000 issue.

But one legal expert warned bankers not to promise more than they can deliver. Pledging total compliance may lead to lawsuits if they fall short in any way, said Thomas P. Vartanian of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in Washington.

Public awareness has skyrocketed in recent months as the news media and congressional hearings have focused on the so-called millennium bug. Computers that know what year it is by the last two digits-98 for 1998, for example-could misread 00 as 1900, throwing all sorts of calculations out of whack.

The largest U.S. banks are disclosing that they expect to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on what they call year-2000 remediation and testing. But a Money magazine article last month suggested that consumers withdraw deposits from smaller banks if they are not convinced of their back-offices' readiness.

In a letter to customers and investors, First Financial Bancorp in Hamilton, Ohio, said it has spent $700,000 correcting the problem and plans to spend $3.5 million more. The $2.6 billion-asset company started reviewing its operations in 1996, wrote Stanley N. Pontius, president and chief executive officer.

"We continue to inventory and assess hardware and software programs," he said. "We've contacted a long list of vendors that interact with our banks, and we've hired extra personnel and consultants to guide us through the effort."

Sun Bancorp, Selinsgrove, Pa., used its quarterly company newsletter to outline compliance efforts. The article described the date-change problem and the bank's efforts to prevent glitches. It pointed out that customers' microwave ovens, telephones, and heating systems may also be affected.

In communications with customers, many banks emphasize their plans to deal with the date change, rather than guaranteeing compliance, which Mr. Vartanian said bankers should be wary of doing.

Mr. Vartanian said a bank should avoid any promises in writing that it may not be able to keep.

If they promise trouble-free compliance, he said, they may be held financially liable for any year-2000 snags. It is safer to explain what steps the bank is taking, he said, such as testing equipment, contacting vendors, and working with consultants.

"I wouldn't go on record and provide guarantees. You need to balance the marketing department and the legal department in your communications," Mr. Vartanian said.

The potential risk has prompted some banks to keep quiet.

Kenneth A. Heiser, president and chief executive officer of First National Bank, Hudson, Wis., said his year-2000 committee discussed putting a message on the bank's Web site to let customers know what they are doing.

But after some debate, Mr. Heiser said, the committee decided against it. "It's a difficult subject to communicate on," he said. "It's too big of a problem to say it's no problem."

American Bankers Association spokesman John L. Hall said many bankers are looking for reassurance that they are handling their year-2000 public relations prudently.

To help out, the ABA is developing a free communications kit, to be available to members next month. It includes sample letters for commercial customers-a step required by regulators-as well as statement stuffers, a question-and-answer brochure on the year-2000 problem, and sample letters to local newspapers.

"Our members are very concerned about this issue, but they need help telling their stories," Mr. Hall said.

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