News about the credit crisis just seems to go from bad to worse, with no end in sight.
Who could have predicted that the Bear Stearns bailout last spring was just the tip of the iceberg? Or that once venerated institutions would be wiped off the map?
Indeed, the past four weeks have felt like financial Armageddon. But I would argue that many stalwarts remain in the banking industry for whom the financial crisis isn't all doomsday and triage. So how should these institutions be communicating? What should they be saying to their customers? What messages are resonating with people and what ones are not? Though many of our nation's banks are doing just fine, it is hardly business as usual for them in terms of communications.
Last week I had breakfast with a friend who is a high-ranking executive at a top 10 bank relatively unscathed by the credit crisis. My friend said media relations had essentially been suspended in his organization for the time being. I probed for the reasoning. His answer? "There is simply too much risk involved. There are too many opportunities for my bank to be misquoted, misconstrued, misinterpreted, misunderstood. We think it important to be well under the radar while this sorts itself out."
As a public relations counselor, I had to respectfully disagree. I reminded him that the novelist Thomas Mann once wrote, "Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact — it is silence which isolates."
History tells us that, absent communication, rumor, speculation, and innuendo rush in to fill the void, leaving in their wake mounting fear and anxiety among company stakeholders and the public at large.
Last June a Gallup Poll showed that consumer confidence in banking had fallen near its lowest level — 32% — since the firm began asking this question in 1979. This month another Gallup Poll found that among affluent Americans — those with $100,000 or more of investable assets — confidence in banks had fallen below 25%.
And today, like many an American looking for added insight when headlines scream of a global financial meltdown, I went online to YouTube and searched on the credit crisis. I found a video from U.S. Treasurer Anna Cabral, who did a good job of putting the current situation in its proper context and explaining what the bailout is intended to do. I felt a little better. But I wanted more — more reinforcement from corporate leaders who are living and breathing the crisis. I found nothing. So then I checked out the blog scene which, granted, is nonexistent for many banks. But I still figured some of trailblazers would have something on the economy. Again, I found nothing of note.
My point is not so much an indictment of banks' social media practices (or lack thereof) but just an observation about the "all or nothing" communication approach versus a "communicating through good times and bad" approach that has been the foundation of public relations best practices since the days of Teddy Roosevelt.
As a public relations professional who has worked in the financial services industry for well over 20 years, I am often asked for guidance from corporate leaders in times of crisis. To be clear, there are many levels and kinds of crises. The bank I referred to above may be working in relative calm at the eye of the storm surrounding it, and I hope it weathers this time well. But let's face it: All banks are under duress right now in the court of public opinion. With this as their backdrop, what can banks do? I'd say: Break the silence.
Consider the public as voters, not just consumers. Think of them as an electorate with whom you must steadily create and foster relationships and for whose support you must actively campaign. Seize this opportunity to protect your reputation when people are hungry for information on personal finance and what is happening in the financial markets. Start a blog, host town hall meetings in your community, sponsor Webinars, join the Madame Treasurer on YouTube, open a Twitter account, get back on your media relations horse, and give Suze Orman a run for her money.
Silence is a powerful and destructive form of communication. So say something, do something. And in due time, the public will reward you for your good corporate citizenship, and for your courage to lead.