While many think of the holidays as a time to spend and ponder their credit, debt-related issues are of year-round interest to reporters and consumers.
As US families embark on what has become a national spending spree over the holiday season, a good many of them will over-indulge on their credit.
Consumer debt and credit levels have risen to record heights in recent years, fueled by the "must- have" mentality exhibited by a growing number of consumers.
Cardweb.com reports that the average US family currently carries more than $9,300 in credit-card debt, and those numbers ensure that stories on credit and credit management remain a staple of the personal finance beat.
Ken Scott of Houston-based Ken Scott Communications has represented local and national credit counseling firms and organizations for two-plus decades, and says that the media has gotten a lot savvier about the potential dangers of credit abuse.
"When we first started out, most reporters didn't even know what credit counseling was," says Scott, who currently represents the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. "Now most personal finance reporters are very good at helping consumers not only determine if they have credit and debt problems, but also where they can get help."
New takes on the credit story
Scott notes that it can occasionally be a challenge to find new angles to the credit story. But he adds, "There are new wrinkles to things like consumer fraud all the time and, more importantly, there are new consumers to be found every year. So a lot of pitches that deal with the importance of a spending plan or the need to save can be presented on a regular basis because they impact people differently as they reach different life stages."
The debt and credit story got a huge boost this spring with the passage of the Bankruptcy Reform Bill after years of debate. The bill makes it harder to erase debt by declaring bankruptcy.
"A lot of congressional reporters covered the bill while it was being debated, and throughout the summer we got calls from business columnists and general staff writers on what it would mean when it took effect in October," says Laura Fisher, senior PR manager for the American Bankers Association (ABA).
The ABA was a supporter of the new law, and, as a result, Fisher says she was inundated with calls from reporters.
"We had to keep fending off claims that we were breaking backs by not letting people declare bankruptcy," she says. "A lot of the coverage was emotional. It was frustrating that reporters kept using certain examples to describe the bill's impact, such
as the woman who was on $500 monthly disability and how she'd be affected. That simply is not true because the bill exempts people under their state's mean income from the changes."
Nick Jacobs, PR director for the National Foundation for Credit Counselors, adds that the bankruptcy bill also triggered stories on how credit counselors are dealing with the influx of people trying to address their debt now that the new law is in place.
Jacobs stresses that it's not just the bankruptcy bill alone that is driving the media interest.
"We're now dealing with queries about managing your money through the holidays," he says. "Soon there will be stories on people facing those credit-card bills after their holiday spending. Interest has also been rising over 30-something financial issues, especially stories dealing with how they're coping with credit cards and student loans."
With most of this coverage, Jacobs says that there are opportunities to leverage his organization's national footprint to connect reporters to a credit counselor in their area so they can localize the story.
"A lot of reporters are also looking to us to provide specific examples of people who have turned to credit counselors, so I'll also put the word out to our members to find out if they have a client who can fit this profile," he adds. "There are some folks who don't want to have their problems become public knowledge, but we've also found many others who are very comfortable talking about this."
Kelly Rote, communications head for nonprofit Money Management International, says it helps to link pitches to news events and trends. "Things such as the release of the latest economic indicators or events, or even back-to-school when kids are going off to college - those are great times for stories on how to use credit wisely," she says.
Pitching... credit management
- The best way to get reporters interested in doing credit stories is to provide real examples of how families cope with debt
- The holidays have long been a good opportunity for cautionary stories on over-spending, but you can also follow up in January and pitch stories to personal finance reporters on helping people deal with a huge credit-card bills
- Magazines aimed at teens and 20-somethings are great outlets for stories on using credit cards wisely and the importance of getting educated early on credit management