ANALYSIS: Client Profile - How Visa is equipped to wage war on crises/When the Justice Department fired off an anti-trust suit against Visa USA last fall, the credit card giant had its crisis PR plan in place. The company now runs its public affairs opera

On December 31st the war room will be manned, ready to respond to any Y2K crises. The top brass will be in attendance as well. If Y2K problems escalate, the responses have been pre-planned as much as possible. Is this the Pentagon? Microsoft? Don’t bet your credit card on it.

On December 31st the war room will be manned, ready to respond to any Y2K crises. The top brass will be in attendance as well. If Y2K problems escalate, the responses have been pre-planned as much as possible. Is this the Pentagon? Microsoft? Don’t bet your credit card on it.

On December 31st the war room will be manned, ready to respond to

any Y2K crises. The top brass will be in attendance as well. If Y2K

problems escalate, the responses have been pre-planned as much as

possible. Is this the Pentagon? Microsoft? Don’t bet your credit card on

it.



Try Visa USA corporate headquarters in San Francisco, where a new style

of corporate public affairs and organization of the communications

department is taking hold.



Visa started upgrading its public affairs capabilities last year,

spurred on by knowledge that the Justice Department was considering an

anti-trust suit against it. The change can be seen in the public affairs

(now called ’issues management’) department, which until a few years ago

had no ongoing research program or intelligence network to serve member

banks. It now has a ’war room’ set up to handle communications in times

of potential crises.



The redirection in the communications program at Visa corporate

relations overall is credited to EVP for John Onoda, a former GM PR

executive and an avowed opponent of the ’silo’ PR mentality.



Kelly Presta, the 32-year-old VP for issues management, sought to adopt

the models of communications that he had observed as a Capitol Hill aide

and political appointee in the Bush administration at the State

Department.



Seeking greater expertise, he hired the Washington, DC-based opinion

research firm of Fabrizio-McLaughlin (FM) while retaining the four-year

relationship with Ketchum.





Considering all scenarios



Ketchum SVP Anne Forristall Luke says FM is constantly pushing Visa to

consider the possible scenarios and options that could occur when

confronting potential crises. It is a method, she contends, that is

needed more in public affairs decision-making.



For example, when the Justice Department filed its anti-trust lawsuit

against Visa USA and MasterCard International in October 1998, the

company responded not in a press conference, but in three-minute taped

statements that were sent to TV stations via satellite feeds. After

testing by focus groups starting months before the Justice Department

decision was announced, the message that was delivered emphasized that

consumers have unlimited choices when it comes to credit cards.



Y2K is another example of a potential crisis. Credit card problems would

create immediate public unease and media attention. Employees would need

to respond to customer concerns. Furthermore, the damage done to Visa’s

brand image could create long-term problems with perceptions held by

consumers as well as member banks. And a company that often finds itself

a target of legislators and regulators would be rendered even more

vulnerable.



’Anticipatory’ is the quality that Presta would like to have for issue

management at Visa. Polls are conducted monthly, and for Y2K, initial

plans call for two weeks of tracking polls. Presta believes there are

thresholds in terms of measurable opinion that should be achieved to

define victory.



FM VP Bob Ward says Visa’s commitment to regularly monitor public

opinion on issues, particularly before they develop into problems, is

not unusual in conducting research for political campaigns. But it is

still not done regularly by many corporations. And Visa now has a

sophisticated network of contacts within key decision-making

institutions, and computer searches on media stories are conducted to

determine troublesome word patterns.



While aggressiveness is prized in anticipating issues, addressing such

issues publicly can be more nuanced. ’Sometimes being quiet is best,’

stresses Presta, who cites a recent example to demonstrate how political

techniques can produce a winning result.



This past spring, contacts within regulatory and legislative staffs

alerted the company to the fact that the White House was planning to

hold an event that would link the credit card industry to consumer debt

and concerns about privacy. President Clinton also emphasized the desire

to improve financial literacy.



Opinion research provided issue management with an understanding of the

anticipated points that the president would say and how they would

resonate with the public. A plan was drafted in advance of the speech

that detailed Visa’s response, which was handled in a news release

citing their shared concern about improving financial literacy. Member

banks and third-party surrogates were also alerted on how they should

address the issues.



Presta admits that the criticism offered by Clinton was relatively

muted, and several news events turned his talk into a less than

compelling news event. But companies could just as easily ’overreact’ to

such an event, creating a front-page story, or simply do nothing,

leaving their member banks unprepared for a response if the event had

been a bigger story.



Visa uses its intelligence briefs as a selling point to member banks,

which are naturally concerned about legislative initiatives that would

threaten their profit margins.



Industry observers consider the Visa communications team to be

proficient, but are not entirely complimentary. One New York-based

financial services industry writer credited Visa with being ’more

proactive’ in dealing with journalists. ’But it also tends to be a

little more controlling in how it presents the information,’ he adds,

using the term ’slick’ to describe Visa’s PR efforts.



Visa has nevertheless made great strides over the past year in

coordinating its three main efforts: branding, public affairs and

corporate. The impact, notes Ketchum’s Luke, is registered not just

within the company but also the agency.





Integrated partnership



When the integrated partnership concept started, ’I almost never talked

to my counterpart in New York. Now, there’s cross-sharing and

integration,’ Presta says. (Ketchum’s New York office handles brand

work; DC handles public affairs; San Francisco does corporate.) The

client’s change in operating style has carried over to the agency. Onoda

works closely with Visa’s top management in coordinating the

communications effort with corporate leaders.



The leadership team includes Presta, Albert Coscia (corporate

reputation) and Susan Forman (employee effectiveness) and the following

Ketchum pros - national account director Dave Sampson; Luke, the group

manager for public affairs; Michael O’Brien, SVP and group manger for

the corporate brand and SVP Ann Simon, group manager for employee

communications.



O’Brien has this to say about Visa’s integrated approach: ’We bring

different perspectives of the business and yet seek cohesion.’ Just as

in a political campaign, not everyone has to agree - as long as victory

is achieved.





VISA USA



PR head: EVP of corporate relations John Onoda



PR staff: 18



Divisions: Corporate Reputation and Communications; Issues Management;

Employee Effectiveness; and Information Management



External agencies: Ketchum (four-year relationship), Fabrizio McLaughlin

& Associates (one and a half years).



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