Wednesday, March 27

Speaking Frankly: Five PR Topics From A Banker

Paul Stowell, senior vice president and marketing manager for City National Bank, will be the first to say he isn't a banker because his public relations experience is malleable to any industry. And yet, there isn't much he doesn't know about the banking industry. He makes it his business to know. 

Like many seasoned public relations and marketing professionals, he rightly believes that it is one of the most important lessons that a communication professional can learn. It's not enough to become an expert in the field of public relations or marketing, professionals have to understand the industry where their organizations operate.

This was one of several tips he shared with a handful of students in my Writing For Public Relations class  at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last Thursday. And while he gave them many more than five tips, these were among the ones that seemed to stand out the most. 

Five words worth focus for communicators, from a senior vice president in banking.

1. Awareness. Stowell doesn't pull punches. He quickly pointed out that being in the banking industry isn't always easy since 2008. Bankers, as a profession, have a lower likability than lawyers nowadays.

Not all of it is deserved. Politicians and critics frequently demonize and vilify the industry, even when it isn't warranted. Not all banks were part of the subprime mortgage crisis that contributed to the recession, including City National Bank. These banks weren't in the mortgage business and have since emerged from the crisis safer and stronger than ever. 

That doesn't mean City National Bank was exempted from the consequences of a crisis caused by others. As the crisis wore on, investors, customers, and journalists had questions. Stowell stressed that maintaining a conservative approach wasn't enough. The bank had to continually be aware and track public reaction to the industry and communicate how it was different from other banks. 

2. Relationships. One of the most important aspects of public relations and marketing continues to be relationships, even though Stowell sees relationships eroding under the weight of social media. No, he doesn't see social media as evil. On the contrary, he advises anyone who wants to enter any communication field to know it inside and out. 

At the same time, Stowell says that many students sacrifice too much one-on-one quality for the promise of quantity that social media provides. Not all of their personal or presentation skill sets are as strong as they need to be, he said. They tend to sacrifice real relationships too often. 

Stowell says they need a more balanced approach, taking the time to make in-person impacts both internally (with executives who will teach you the industry) and outside of the industry (journalists, customers, and investors) who want to trust the professional they are talking to as much as the organization.

3. Active. With journalists facing more time famine than ever before, public relations practitioners need to consider how to make the journalist's job easier, not harder. In addition to establishing a strong and worthwhile relationship, Stowell suggests that the best news stories aren't passive, but active. 

Companies that do things naturally make news. For example, in his industry, banks that host economic forecast panels and share that information are much more likely to earn media attention. Even if the focus isn't on the bank, journalists appreciate organizations that look beyond themselves. 

The same holds true within the community. Organizations that are involved within the communities in which they operate tend to outperform those that do not — not because of the bottom line but because the bottom line is that it is the right thing to do. For City National Bank, they work diligently ramping up support for education and literary.

4. Contrast. Although implied throughout all of the lessons, Stowell places an emphasis on finding contrast points that immediately identify an organization as different. Financial stability, relationship focus, and customer satisfaction are consistently listed among the top three for City National Bank (which earned it numerous Greenwich Excellence Awards over the years).

The reason is simple enough. If potential customers perceive several organizations as virtually the same in the marketplace, then there isn't a compelling reason to choose one over the other. Stowell says this is one of the reasons that many companies that attempt to follow the leaders or simply do what other companies do eventually fail because the point of contrast people will remember is who did it first.

Considering his point, communicators have a two-fold challenge. They have to identify what the company does consistently different and well and then effectively communicate it. Ergo, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk, not one or the other.

5. Measurement. It almost goes without saying, despite the number of the public relations professionals who seem to refute it. Communication is measurable and it must be measured. 

"When a story runs in the paper one day and the bank receives seven calls to open new business accounts, it's a measurement," says Stowell. "Everything is measurable and you have to measure or you risk being unable to prove the value of public relations to the organization."

The point hit home for many of the students. Many public relations firms attempt to place value on exposure whereas the real measurement is the result of the outcome. Sometimes those outcomes are measured in direct response. Other times they are measured in public or customer sentiment.

Combined, these five topics provide a direct contrast to what many marketing and public relations professionals tend to talk about online. And, if anything, these topics tend to be the conversations that executive management have when making marketing budget decisions. Are you on the same page?
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