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Media and Crisis Management

The Banks – Avoid Answering Emotions With Fact

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: The Banks – Avoid Answering Emotions With Fact Crisis communications
Given the slash and burn of reputations during this economic upheaval here are three vintage crisis PR aphorisms for businesses to remember especially while everyone’s hair is on fire:

One.  Avoid answering emotional arguments with facts.

Two.  If you want people to believe you care, first show them you care. 

Three. Perception is everything.

Some businesses and institutions are violating these folk wisdoms and getting in a huff when no one accepts their arguments.  Two major examples:

Wells Fargo, a federal taxpayer bailout recipient, first said it would proceed with a Las Vegas trip to reward high performers and then, after taking grief from Congress and the media reversed field and canceled.  Full page newspaper ads by the bank challenged claims it was a junket, said it was a 20 year tradition, and said the hotels, restaurants and airlines were losers because of the cancelled trip.

Bank of America, another bailout recipient, held a multi-day Super Bowl event and took a serious public bashing afterwards.

Neither bank used nor planned to use tax money for these occasions.  In fact Wells Fargo will pay a substantial cancellation penalty for bailing on the Las Vegas trek.

All of us in business understand the logic behind these trips.  We each look for ways to raise the profile of our brands and who can blame Bank of America for wanting to do it at the Super Bowl.  Also, we go to gatherings similar to Wells Fargo’s because we improve our knowledge, network, track the trends, and, sure, have a good time.  Mostly though, we get smarter.  My former profession, journalism, almost never sent us to such meetings.  So, when I started my business in 1994 I began attending conferences and was astonished at how much they helped.  I couldn’t afford my first trip but someone said, “You’ll cut your learning curve in half!”  I went and I did.

So, bottom line, there were reasonable reasons for doing what Bank of America did and what Wells Fargo planned.  Unfortunately both companies fell into gaping PR holes.  I sympathize.  I worked with a group struggling with similar issues about an upcoming conference this year.  Because it made sense on paper to hold the meeting in spite of the economy we worked hard on messages to justify it publicly.  I thought we had good arguments that would work in a vacuum.  However, we aren’t living in a vacuum.  My group, despite our best efforts, sensed something that Wells Fargo and Bank of America perhaps didn’t.  In this serious downturn nothing said, however artful and logical, could offset the gut perception that the trip would convey: rich bankers in paradise while average people suffer.  Additionally, how would a conference attendee explain the well-meaning trip to employees after job cutting and serious reductions?  What about customers?  Shareholders?  The public?

These are new, brutal times.  We are definitely not operating in a vacuum.  We cannot look justifiably angry people in the eye and argue on behalf of conferences that appear insensitive to those in harm’s way.  We can’t tell people we care if we act as though we don’t.  We can’t offset emotional reactions with rationales that make sense to us but not to most average people.  Worst of all, once perceived as not caring, how would we change that perception for the future?

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