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
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
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
’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
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.
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
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
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).