CAMPAIGNS: Reputation Management - Bank opens up to its customers

Client: Wells Fargo Bank (Portland, OR)

Client: Wells Fargo Bank (Portland, OR)

Client: Wells Fargo Bank (Portland, OR)

PR Team: Tom Unger, Northwest public relations manager for Wells Fargo

in Portland, OR

Campaign: Win back lost customers, introduce return to traditional


Time Frame: August 1999

Budget: Less than dollars 1,000

Confession is good for the soul, they say. It’s also good for a public

relations campaign - so the Oregon division of Wells Fargo Bank has


Waves of bank mergers have infuriated customers, who see the new

megabanks as unfeeling and unfriendly. In 1996, when Wells Fargo

completed a hostile takeover of First Interstate Bank - a 10-state

(including Oregon) bank that was itself the product of several mergers -

the result was predictable.

Soon, hot-shot Wells Fargo managers encouraged long-time employees to

take early retirement, began to replace traditional branches with

in-store supermarket outlets and pulled business lenders out of the

market and nearly stopped making business loans.

In Oregon, the reaction was swift and severe. Deposits dropped from

about dollars 5 billion in 1996 to dollars 2.8 billion. Customers left

in droves.

Then, last November, Wells Fargo merged with Norwest Bank of


Norwest adopted the historic Wells Fargo name but quickly sought to

establish its own customer-service-oriented, decentralized management


George Passadore, Wells Fargo’s CEO in Oregon and a third-generation

Oregonian, and Tom Unger, his public

relations lieutenant - both survivors of the merger wars - needed to get

the new story out.


Passadore and Unger adopted the novel approach of being honest with

their public. They began by confessing earlier mistakes and admitting

that the once-popular bank had lost ground.

Unger wanted massive coverage of the local bank’s new plans. He used

personal contact, knowledge of past coverage and familiarity with

business reporters to persuade them his story was newsworthy. The

Business Journal of Greater Portland was a fairly easy sell and it did a

lead story. But The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, proved

much more resistant.

Unger would have to work on the reporter there.


Unger faxed and called the reporter. He told him that Wells Fargo had

made the decision to put the business lenders back in the market. But

the reporter replied that that wasn’t a story.

Oh, yeah? Unger retorted. ’Three years ago you did a story on pulling

them out, now we are putting them back in.’ He showed the reporter, who

was new to the paper, the earlier coverage. He added that the bank was

opening up branches again, and that also became part of the campaign


The reporter went for the hard sell but The Oregonian didn’t run a piece

until two weeks after The Business Journal did.

Unger also sent out localized press releases to areas where branches

were reopening and made sure that Passadore was available for interviews

- it’s not often reporters have an opportunity to quiz a bank



The Associated Press soon picked up the story, which was taking on a

life of its own. In less than a month, it had been picked up in nearly

every daily paper in Oregon and was beginning to appear in weeklies.

There were more than 20 television and radio stories. At the end of

August, Northwest Cable News, which covers four states, went with the


An unexpected but welcome result of the successful campaign has been an

improvement in employee morale. Plus, the bank is seeing many former

employees coming back.

It didn’t hurt Unger and Passadore that Norwest’s CEO was in Portland

the morning the story broke in the city’s paper. ’People asked me if I

timed it that way!’ Unger laughed.


Unger intends to reinforce the new message in the future with major

publicity for each new opening of a traditional branch office. He will

also reassure customers that the supermarket branches will continue to

operate as well.

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