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PR: The Credibility Enhancer.

Public relations is an often-neglected, but integral part of marketing.

Remember, it's important to have a PR plan that meshes with your bank's marketing and strategic objectives.

Let's face it: A bank's most valuable asset is its reputation. In today's world--where banking executives face rising competition, restructurings, mergers and diminished resources--bank marketers must know how to protect and uphold that reputation. To accomplish this goal, managers need skilled public relations professionals working in conjunction with marketing personnel. And, these PR experts constantly need to keep their fingers on the publicity pulse of the marketplace.

Good public relations can enhance a bank's marketing, burnish its image in the community and improve the institution's overall competitiveness. The relationship between marketing and public relations is much like that between any process and its accompanying components. Marketing is the process, one associated with promoting goods or services in an effort to sell them.

Traditionally, the classic marketing components have been labeled the four Ps:

Product Banks select and develop their products/services.

Price: Banks determine the price at which to sell these products/services.

Place: Banks select and design the distribution channels through which they sell these products/services.

Promotion: Banks enhance or generate demand for the product.

Clearly, public relations falls under the "P" for promotion, with its counterparts: advertising, direct mail, signage and other interest-generating campaigns. Public relations serves to enhance demand for products and services through building credibility. After identifying the various public groups to which a bank caters, a bank establishes a relationship with each group according to that group's needs and wants. When PR defines a bank's primary public, it's the same as advertising defining the bank's target markets. For example, two significant segments of the public for banks are stockholders and government agencies.

Since the ultimate goal of the marketing process is to promote the sale of goods or services, then public relations and its role in supporting the advertising message should be considered an essential element of the marketing process. "In a perfect world, the PR plan is a subset of the organization's marketing plan," says Cheryl O'Donoghue, senior vice president of marketing for Frontine Group FTR, a sales training and consulting firm in Lombard, Ill. O'Donoghue explains that public relations typically stands by itself in the larger institutions due to the preponderance of investor relations activities they support. "While that's understandable, certain PR activities seem to fall by the wayside," says O'Donoghue. "The more tactical public relations activities become of secondary importance." This point shouldn't be taken lightly and can instead be used to raise a red warning flag for management to act upon. The reality is that strategy can be discussed and rationalized all day, but until a public relations p rogram's tactical measures are in place and communication flow is operational, a PR department is virtually valueless.

O'Donoghue advocates having a public relations team work hand-in-hand with the marketing department. "This can be accomplished by having PR staff in the marketing department or outsourcing all public relations activity." Banks may differ when it comes to the manner in which they execute their PR activities, but none question its essential role in the marketing plan. Its place in the marketing mix is as essential as any component and must be practiced and maintained accordingly.

What if the bank's strategic plan is to build stronger customer relationships with existing clients? "Then the marketing plan must outline specific strategies and tactics to accomplish this goal." O'Donoghue makes a strong point for including public relations in the organization's marketing plan as a cohesive subset of the overall marketing picture. "If marketing has linked its plan successfully to the bank's strategic plan, then the PR plan will be linked automatically as well," O'Donoghue explains.

Public relations and advertising

Public relations is a form of communication that supports and adapts well to advertising and direct mail programs. As much as it works to strengthen these components, there's also one glaring difference between advertising and public relations. Advertising controls the bank's overall message, while public relations reaches in and provides the advertising message with credibility. Advertising may work at winning a consumer's pocketbook, but PR tugs at the consumer's loyalty.

It works this way for Cal Fed, a West Coast bank with 350 branches throughout California. Janice Tarter, corporate communications manager, explains that the PR at Cal Fed is done through teamwork. For example, when marketing people plan advertising around a new branch opening, public relations people work at getting people to the new branch. "It's a very effective way to draw attention to something we're trying to promote," says Tarter. She backs this up by referring to a television commercial they ran a couple of years ago. "We distributed a news release about the television spot which made it draw even more attention," explains Tarter. Some of the more tactical functions of a bank's PR effort include writing product/service reviews. Strong quotes can be pulled from publicity material for use with advertising. Combining the two means that while advertising is pushing a bank's desired message to its markets, public relations is there each step of the way, sprinkling the message with credibility.

Another way in which public relations tends to complement advertising is with sales support materials. In addition to corporate identification brochures and information packets, there are product review reprints and customer testimonials. Finally, there may be no PR tool that offers the credibility-building power like feature articles in trade magazines or other publications read by a bank's target audience.

Common, consistent goals

As with other components in the marketing plan, public relations must begin with clearly stated goals. Identifying what the bank expects to gain from PR brings the plan more life. Define the goals, explicitly and measurably, and evaluate whether the goals are feasible and deadline-oriented. And voila--a picture of the overall public relations function has begun to develop.

From goals and objectives to results assessment, the more focused a public relations plan is, the more quickly its budget is approved. Clearly defined public relations goals outline how a bank plans to integrate PR into the marketing process. "It means eating at the same table as the bank's management," explains David Gering, president of The Gering Group, Simi Valley, Calif. "Genuinely working together means all four managers looking each other in the eye and coming to conclusions together: marketing, public relations, advertising and executive management.

What can PR do for your bank?

Here are the four things that public relations can do for your bank.

1. Build credibility through reputation. Because of the nature of the banking industry, banks are currently facing the problem of differentiating bundles of services and products when there is nothing outstanding with which to make the comparison. Considering the intangible nature of a bank's products, credibility and value are gained largely from the organization's established reputation.

Jim Kartalia, president of SeNet Corp. (now part of the Entegra Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.), bases his whole company's premise upon this "Using common sense, it's hard for a company to argue that any asset is more important or fragile than corporate reputation," says Kartalia. "Any glitch can quickly negate any confidence that's been built up over the past." Kartalia should know since one of his company's biggest selling products is a software package designed exclusively for managing a corporation's reputation. "Reputation management is designed to protect a company's public relations efforts and investments," Kartalia explains. The company's president points out that, generically, if a company were to analyze its long-term strategic public relations expenditures, it would represent a huge amount of money. "But all of that effort and investment of money, time and resources can go by the wayside with one disaster. Just like that, the investment would be washed down the dmin," warns Kartalia.

2. Enhance campaigns. Working closely with the marketing department allows a public relations staff to view every marketing initiative as a potential PR opportunity. O'Donoghue emphasizes this evaluation process includes all of the marketing components. "If spun the right way, even a direct mail campaign to new homebuyers with little or no equity can potentially turn into a PR event," says O'Donoghue. "This is true especially if the bank is offering free seminars to help new homeowners plan their purchase."

3. Serve as the bank's mouthpiece. Banking has always been known as a profession in which it's very easy to fall into the proverbial ivory tower existence. Therefore, it helps to have a mouthpiece in place, ready to move on any hint of a problem, at any given time. "When a crisis occurs, everyone tends to perceive its effects differently," says David Gering. This is because each person in the company is motivated by his different area of interest. Gering notes that when a problem arises for a bank, upper-level management's first instinct tends to be to protect their own kind and take their best shot at burying any crisis. "On the other hand," Gering adds, "a public relations person will look at it proactively to avoid and mitigate the crisis."

Considering the fact that PR faces the same fierce level of competition as advertising, a bank's mouthpiece cannot be chosen too carefully. Far too many banks are out there competing for far too little editorial space. Learning the language of public relations means understanding the jargon that the media want to hear and proposing a clear and concise message for the bank accordingly.

4. Community liaison. Regardless of a bank's primary customer orientation, ongoing community involvement creates the kind of visibility that breeds trust. Gering emphasizes that this goes for both consumer and commercial banks. "This involvement creates penetrable public relations assets that can be leveraged later," says Gering. He goes on to explain that business banks also have the responsibility of maintaining high visibility roles in business organizations from Chambers of Commerce to trade associations.

Communication: the banker's voice

Overall, the responsibility of communicating a bank's strategy to its internal and external publics begins with the CEO. Internally, it helps keep the bank motivated, focused and confidant about its stated direction. From the external standpoint, shareholders and customers benefit by receiving clear, concise communication from the top.

With the onslaught of endless bank restructuring, nothing holds greater weight than a clearly stated vision with which a bank's stakeholders can align themselves. For some CEOs, clear articulation may be a gift. However, this doesn't cover the process of actually listening to the various publics that define a bank's marketplace.

Public relations, as a marketing tool, has its own language, and CEOs are well advised to become fluent. It centers on finding a common ground between the bank and each public group it honors. From there, it means building support one audience at a time.

Banking: the right use of public relations

Since the role of PR is so important to the banking industry, so should be the dedication to a formal public relations plan. The tactical measures should be followed closely and the overall strategy should be revisited throughout the year to confirm that goals are progressing toward completion. "A bank's overall strategy and growth objectives will inevitably change throughout the course of the year," says O'Donoghue. "That's why it's crucial to make sure the bank is still communicating what's most important at the time."

Nothing can be so damaging as to trumpet a bank's reputation only to have that very reputation backfire. Gretchen Bazely, marketing manager for Omega Performance Corp., advocates that a surefire way to make sure the bank is living up to its PR claims by going out and shopping the branches. The North Carolina-based firm is a bank training and consulting company. "Regarding the role of public relations, I think if you're out there using the PR machine to increase name awareness," says Bazely, "then it's also important to deliver on any promises that are being made." Bazely also points out that, first and foremost, marketers need to look at what the bank does exceptionally well, to make sure that it's at least part of the message being transmitted.

There's a great deal of support for building a strong relationship between the PR and marketing departments. Public relations thrives on the role it plays in the overall marketing mix, which is to enhance a bank's advertising message. By keeping the PR department's focus on enhancing an existing message, it's far more likely to serve the bank in the way public relations was intended: to build visibility and credibility for a company and its products/services. Just as a banks advertising department makes no decision without regard to their target markets, a bank's public relations department must feel the same influence from the various public groups they serve. With the marketing department as its guiding arm, these publics will only grow in importance, just as public relations will continue to become an increasingly valuable component to marketing's overall mix.

Debbie Beavers-Moss is freelance writer who specializes in a wide variety of sales, marketing and other business related topics.

The PR Firm: Criteria for Selection

There is no argument about the value of a bank using a public relations firm. The trick, however, is to pick the right company. General categories used to measure a public relations firm's value are industry experience/knowledge, skill and ability, and financial savvy.

Industry Experience/Knowledge: Check closely to find out how long they've worked in the industry and at what success rate.

* Years in public relations business, with emphasis on financial industry.

* Track record for banking clients.

* Account management team: background, industry expertise.

* Support staff.

Skills/Ability: Does the firm hire competent individuals? Use this checklist to be sure the PR firm has all the necessary talent available in-house.

* Understanding of a bank's PR needs and a bank's public relations focus.

* Media contacts and communication techniques.

* Organized plan presenting clearly defined goals.

* Writing skills (in-house).

* Creative talent (in-house).

* Methods for results assessment.

Financial Savvy: An honest, straightforward public relations firm will have no hidden costs and will oversee their bank client's progress closely.

* Method for reporting costs/expenses.

* Method for evaluating a client's progress.

* Frequency of evaluating a client's progress.

* Ability to stay within budget guidelines.

Editorial Coverage: 10 Strategies for Getting the Maximum Benefit

1. Create glossy reprints for the bank salespeople and other representative, in their sales presentations.

2. Mail reprints with personalized letters to bank prospects, customers and/or clients.

3. Distribute reprints among the bank's employees to boost pride and enthusiasm.

4. Frame or laminate articles for lobby or reception areas at the bank's branches.

5. Put reprints in a three-ring binder and display in the bank's lobby or reception area.

6. Distribute reprints at industry trade shows, conventions or other meetings.

7. Give reprints to the bank's board of directors, shareholders or other advisory councils.

8. Send reprints to the bank's primary trade associations. They may offer additional industry exposure.

9. Use reprints to update the bank's strategic plan. They give added credibility.

10. Record the bank's articles on audiocassette tape.

Source: Trade Press Services, Thousand Oaks, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Bank Marketing Assn.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:maintaining public relations
Comment:PR: The Credibility Enhancer.(maintaining public relations)
Author:Beavers-Moss, Deborah
Publication:ABA Bank Marketing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
Previous Article:A (REBRANDED) Star Is Born!
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