Old band-aids won't heal the financial sector's PR wounds

In the past year, the PR industry has stressed the need to rebuild public trust in the financial community.

In the past year, the PR industry has stressed the need to rebuild public trust in the financial community. After its September 2008 implosion, followed by a string of bad press about oversized bonuses and executive retreats, this is no surprise.

While many companies were wounded in the fallout from the financial meltdown, including auto companies like Ford, which continues its fight against a "perception gap" between the corporation and its stakeholders, the reputation case of the big banks is much different. The financial services industry isn't facing a perception gap; it's facing an angry public hard hit by rampant unemployment and an ambitious Democrat-controlled Washington that is promising to be in the reform game for the long haul. This is not a gap it can afford to ignore. Nor can it attempt to placate people with band-aid like measures such as advertising online debt calculators or a reduction from 10-a-day overdraft fees to four-a-day charges.

The industry needs a "move-the-needle" issue around which it can create a communications campaign. It could take a page from Wal-Mart's playbook to rebranding the superstore as a green one, or at least a green-conscious one. When the retailer decided to start selling laundry detergent only in concentrated forms, it took that one change and built a platform to explain how it cared about the environment - then it communicated the heck out of it. Slowly, it has added other changes to help rebuild its reputation among customers, staff, and even Capitol Hill.

There is no reason the financial services industry can't do this. Imagine what would happen if one credit card company issued a 5% fixed rate card for the year and put all its communications resources behind it. It would keep its other products, but allow some consumers to switch to this one. It could also use personal success stories of that card's users to reach out to other customers in local areas. The news might even travel back to DC.

Perhaps the financial industry doesn't want to change its reputation; maybe it thinks band-aids of years past will tide it over until the furor of reform passes. But if it is serious about rebuilding the burned bridges of last year's meltdown, it's time for the financial industry to find a real issue - and a real message.

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