Finance sector turns to social media to rebuild public trust

An angry populace has lost its faith in the financial services industry, but many corporations in the sector have come to realize social media is a key tool in reversing that trend.

An angry populace has lost its faith in the financial services industry, but many corporations in the sector have come to realize social media is a key tool in reversing that trend.

The Financial Services Roundtable, which represents more than 100 firms, including the major banks, last summer abandoned plans to launch an image-restoring PR campaign. Instead, it implemented its first social media strategy.

"Prior to 2010, we really didn't have a social media platform," says Elise Brooks, communications manager for the roundtable. "But social media has done some really great things for us in reaching a broader audience and enhancing the industry's reputation. We'll continue on that same path for the time being."

Social media specifics

The strategy includes the launch of Financing America's Economy, a new blog featuring information about financial literacy, pending legislation and regulation, as well as the charitable efforts of the nation's top financial services company. Steve Bartlett, president and CEO of the roundtable, has used the blog to address many hot-button issues, including the controversial Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The roundtable also uses Twitter for short messaging and to promote its YouTube channel, which aims to show how its member companies contribute to communities.

"We try to take cameras with us wherever we can and record everything from scholarship awards to habitat builds," says Brooks. "We also interview [member] CEOs on what they are doing in communities and why being part of the community is important."

Bank of America has increased its presence on social media, including the launch of new Twitter handles (BofA_news; BofA_community).

"Social networking is another way we are keeping customers informed of the bank's progress in helping the economy to recover, as well as the recovery of our consumers and communities," says Joe Goode, SVP of global media relations for the bank.

Another new Twitter handle, BofA_tips, helps consumers get the most from their money with tips on shopping, travel, and personal finance.

"By providing useful content, a channel like Twitter is helping us quickly gain followers and consumers in the virtual places where they're gathering," says Goode.

The bank also partnered with AOL to deliver educational PR content on saving money and time over the holidays. In addition, it engaged mommy bloggers to share tips about how its online and mobile banking capabilities can address their needs. To date, the program has generated more than 60 posts and 26,000-plus comments.

Bank of America's social media strategy is part of a broader integrated marcomms program, which ranges from CEO and senior management engagement to paid advertising, aimed at helping restore public goodwill.

"Rebuilding trust is something the entire industry is focused on," says Goode. "It is something that will need to be earned over time and with consumer-focused actions, not words."

In November, Citigroup introduced a Facebook page to communicate, among other facets, how it gives back. The bank also uses Twitter, YouTube, and blogs, including one recently launched for its Women & Co. division.

"In this new world, you need to be transparent," says Frank Eliason, SVP of social media for Citi. "The transparency is not just with your business practices, but what you do as a company for the good. It is about building trust."

Moving forward, he says Citi plans to expand the ways it can interact with consumers online.

"We do customer service via Twitter and want to enhance that," notes Eliason. "A challenge we have as a bank is the issue of privacy and security. So we'll offer a click-to-call and click-to-chat feature that is secure and will enable people to talk to the same person they've been tweeting with.

"We're also looking at ways to better socialize the organization," he adds. "How can we get more involved in social media while still meeting all financial regulations?" Socialization isn't so much aimed at the executive level, but involving "everyday people" at the bank.

Citi is working with a number of PR firms, but Eliason declined to name them.

Solving problems

To help rebuild customer relationships, Wells Fargo's corporate communications department has promoted programs such as the company's Home Preservation Workshops, in which mortgage consultants meet face-to-face with customers to sort through their home ownership challenges.

"We plan to accelerate this program in 2011," says Oscar Suris, EVP of corporate communications. "Customers want to see that we're the source of problem solving, not of problems.

"We have a lot more work to do for our industry to regain public trust," he adds. "Ultimately, we have to communicate to stakeholders that we get it."

Bank of America: ready to react

Bank of America has reportedly assembled a damage-control plan should WikiLeaks release insider documents that could embarrass it.

Joe Goode, the bank's SVP of global media relations, declined to comment about WikiLeaks.

But Frank Eliason, SVP of social media for Citi, says its PR department would take to social media should it be the target of WikiLeaks.

"As companies are learning about social media," he explains, "they're understanding some of the benefits of a transparent approach."

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