No matter how well prepared banks are for 2000, they still must deal with consumers' perceptions.

In every bank branch, every day, a certain number of customers have trouble with their automated teller machine cards. And every day, bankers must respond to customers who don't think their statements quite reconcile, or who had a bounced check returned in the mail. These things happen.

As 2000 draws near-with the attendant extensive media coverage-a certain number of people are going to look at every minor incident and wonder whether their bank is having a Y2K problem.

In the banking business, perception can become reality very quickly. All it takes is a small number of people to start lining up to close their accounts, and for the media to cover it, before a problem becomes real.

That is why effective communication is a crucial element of Y2K planning. And the time to start is now-right in your own backyard.

Banks need to make sure that every employee in every branch knows the facts-and fiction-about Y2K. Employees should be given thorough information, including fact sheets answering common questions. Banks should hold seminars for employees and give them regular updates.

Banks need to make sure that when customers ask about Y2K employees know the answers. One or two tellers answering customers' questions by saying, "Well, they say everything is O.K., but I'm taking some money out of the bank, just to be sure," can snowball into a crisis of confidence for an entire branch.

Also, banks should communicate with customers proactively. This subject is in the news every day. It's on people's minds. And if it's not, it will be.

Communicating with customers now will show that banks are being up- front-sending the signal that they are unafraid to talk about the subject and that their customers need not be afraid either.

Most important, banks must be prepared to deal with the media. What's in the paper and what's on TV affects what customers and the community at large are thinking. What's going to happen Christmas week, when a TV camera crew strolls into a bank branch and begins interviewing people?

What should the procedure be if reporters start interviewing or photographing customers outside the bank? Are tellers allowed to give interviews? Are branch managers? Is there a designated media contact available around the clock? Has that person been briefed on Y2K contingencies that may arise?

Spokespeople should know which reporters are covering Y2K and should be sure that reporters know how to reach them. What if it's the weekend of Jan. 1, the bank's closed, and a crisis breaks? Or a bank's ATMs have a problem? And reporters start calling the bank's spokesman at 10 p.m. Friday?

Someone should be ready if a press conference needs to be organized on short notice over the weekend. If negative publicity appears, the bank should be ready to respond swiftly.

What banks need in this situation is a detailed and comprehensive crisis communications contingency plan. Just as their technology consultants and their attorneys are preparing plans for other Y2K-related contingencies, they need to have one that deals with communications issues.

The appropriate people at banks should start talking to the media now about what they're doing about Y2K.

Giving press briefings, preparing white papers, and introducing the media to your experts are all good ways to start. The idea is to build a relationship based on a solid understanding of the facts so that, when New Year's rolls around, reporters or news directors getting calls from people who could not use an ATM have what they need for fair and responsible coverage.

It is also crucial to correct negative impressions as soon as you become aware of them. If a reporter calls and has misinformation, respond. If an incorrect story appears in print, call and talk to the person who wrote it. In some cases, a letter to the editor might help set the record straight.

Also, monitoring the Internet can help stop falsehoods from spreading on-line.

There's no reason banks should not try, as well, to generate positive stories in the media about Y2K. Bank deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

There's no place safer than a bank. In fact, if people are worried about Y2K, the bank is exactly where their money should be. That's a story each bank can tell.

Finally, bankers should talk to their local trade associations, which may be able to help with Y2K planning.

The Community Bankers Association of New York State, for example, has held forums where banks could share information, and it has distributed valuable materials to help banks get their message across.

The bottom line is that the banking industry should take advantage of its strong position to make sure people know of its readiness for the year- 2000 date change. If banks do that, if they plan extensively for any unrest that may arise, and if their staffs are trained and ready, they'll get through whatever bumps may lie along the way.

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