Robert Rivers has found his public voice on social media.
Rivers, chairman and CEO of Eastern Bank in Boston, has only 292 followers, but he recently made it clear to them how upset he was with local radio station WEEI in the wake of several scandals involving its on-air personalities.
The executive, via his personal Twitter account, recently retweeted a column in The Boston Globe demanding change at the embattled station after a host mocked a sports agent by using a stereotypical Asian accent. The incident followed another on-air personality’s insensitive comments about Tom Brady’s 5-year-old daughter.
“Thanks for calling them out,” Rivers said to the Globe's Shirley Leung, who used her column to urge companies to pull their advertising until the station changes its culture.
“This is why we @easternbank don’t advertise on this station,” Rivers added.
The Feb. 12 tweet has been shared 38 times and received nearly 160 likes.
“The likes were multiples higher than on anything I ever tweeted,” Rivers said. “I wasn’t doing it to get likes. I did it because this is unfortunate … and someone should say something about it.”
Rivers, who has since tweeted that he wants lawmakers to do more to curb gun violence in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, is the latest example of a banker becoming more comfortable using social media to share personal views that sometimes get political. In most instances, executives make it clear that their feeds reflect personal views that should not be connected to their institution.
Patricia Husic, CEO of Centric Bank in Harrisburg, Pa., has used her personal Twitter account to back women's issues while also supporting and retweeting comments from Donald Trump. Natalie Bartholomew, chief marketing officer at Grand Savings Bank in Rogers, Ark., recently turned her Twitter account into a feed that touts the accomplishments of female bankers.
While there is some risk involved when making public statements about controversial issues, Rivers’ tweet about WEEI sends a strong message to consumers and employees, said Kim Whitler, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
“That can be actually helpful — a bit of a north star for" a banker's identity, Whitler said. “For the brand, there’s a benefit internally. With consumers, the only risk is [that the bank] has to make sure they live up to that standard over time.”
While he didn’t intend for the tweet to be controversial, Rivers said he felt moved to say something after reading vulgar comments directed at the Globe columnist.
“The response was overwhelmingly positive from the community,” Rivers said of his tweet, though he admitted some colleagues expressed concern about a potential backlash, given that WEEI has a large following of devoted listeners.
To be sure, Rivers has gotten some pushback from people who saw the tweet, including a follower who accused him of “contributing to the new cry baby society that we live in.”
“Ummm hypocrite much?!?” the follower added.
“This isn’t something we do regularly, but we continue to be a voice of advocacy in Boston,” Rivers said, citing Eastern’s efforts advancing women and the LGBT community. “As long as you feel that you’ve taken the high road, you should feel good about it and not dwell [on it] too much.”
Eastern isn’t the only Boston financial institution to react decisively to WEEI. Citizens Bank and City of Boston Credit Union have suspended their advertising with the station.
Marketing experts said that the companies’ reactions highlight the importance of conducting due diligence when spending advertising dollars, especially given the divisive political and social climates that exist today. Where bank ads appear is in large part a reflection of the company’s values and brand, Whitler said.
All advertising vehicles carry some risk, but there are ways to mitigate exposure, said Steven Reider, president of Bancography, a marketing and branch-planning adviser in Birmingham, Ala. Banks should assess whether the publication, TV station, radio station or website reaches their target market, then evaluate if the outlet aligns with the desired brand image.
“You can choose and disqualify certain ones that are blatantly opposed to the values you want to project for your institution,” Reider said. “The challenge is what happens in situations where you think you’re advertising on … a well-aligned vehicle and then something occurs that causes you to question that.”
Deutsche Bank, for example, was one of several companies that pulled advertising from YouTube in 2017 after the company’s ads were appearing near inappropriate videos of children. Deutsche gave statements about the advertising decision in the media.
A bank must decide whether it is going to pull the advertising quietly or make a louder statement, Reider said. “It’s not enough to just go quietly away, but you want to demonstrate to customers that you are on what you believe is the right side of the issue,” he said.
Banks historically have avoided courting controversy or drawing too much attention to themselves, especially when a message can be broadcast to the world in an instant, industry observers said. Still, the risk of speaking out could be worth taking, especially for smaller banks seeking differentiation or authenticity.
To appeal to younger customers, it may not be enough to simply pull advertising, Reider said.
“Rather, take the stand to illustrate what the company’s values are,” he said.