A strong public relations program will help your credit union achieve its growth strategies.
Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles was the first video played on MTV in August 1981. It turned out to be not only a prescient choice but is now a truly iconic symbol of how the music industry was shifting away from the dominance of commercial radio as the preferred marketing channel. MTV turned the marketing strategy model of the music industry on its head in the 1980s.
A similar evolution is happening in marketing, where public relations strategy is overtaking traditional advertising as the preferred method for connecting with consumers. Today, consumers have the ability to avoid commercial advertising by fast-forwarding through commercials, subscribing to satellite or online radio, or using an app to get their traffic reports. Advertising is becoming less and less the norm for how your members and potential members are getting information about companies, products and services.
To remain relevant and reach your market, you need to shift your focus from promotional advertising to a strategic public relations approach.
The Benefits of PR
A good PR strategy is the best way to help you raise awareness of your brand, maintain your relevance, establish credibility and save money. These are all an integral part of achieving growth for your organization. Regardless of how you want to grow—organically by existing members using more products and services, adding new members from current select employer groups, bringing new SEGs into your credit union or growing through merger—developing and consistently implementing a good PR strategy is a cost-effective way to ensure your organization’s success.
Raise awareness. At the foundation of every brand are the answers to the questions “who are you?” and “why should a consumer or business choose you?” People and organizations cannot engage in business with you if they don’t know you exist. They won’t buy from you if they don’t know why you are relevant to them. You need to tell your story in multiple channels and remind potential members and business partners about who you are (your name), what you believe (your mission) and how you do business (your values).
Maintain your relevance. A PR strategy also has the benefit of keeping your business and brand relevant and helping you make emotional connections with your members.
For example, if you serve the military community, tell the story of what your CU does to help members of the military and their families. This will resonate with members and also position your CU to be a potential partner for new SEGs and charities that also support the military community.
Establish credibility. Having your story told in your local newspaper, by an industry publication or by key stakeholders via social media lends credibility to your message. Having a reputable organization cover your CU’s activities provides credibility and strengthens your reputation for doing business with honesty and integrity.
Save money. Perhaps the greatest benefit of a PR strategy is that your CU can tell its story in your local newspaper, on the radio, on TV or via social media with a broader reach and with less expense than advertising can provide on its own. This should please the CFOs and CEOs reading this article! However, you do need to recognize that resources have to be committed to engage in PR strategy and implementation every day.
To reap these benefits, follow these four fundamental components of a PR plan.
1. Make PR a Core Function
It’s easy to let PR fall to the wayside. You may have the best intentions, but it is likely that PR strategy and implementation are not the primary responsibilities of someone on your team. The result is that the story you were going to tell is stale, the event is over and you forgot to call the reporter—or the member you were going to ask for a testimonial is unresponsive. That’s why it’s so important to develop a PR strategy that has the same level of priority as your traditional advertising and marketing campaigns.
If PR is not currently an organizational priority, you may need to start by explaining why it is so important to your key stakeholders. From your front office to your back office and from the executives to the interns, everyone needs to understand that PR is significant at your CU. As you are developing your PR strategy, ensure that you are talking about the reason it is important and why you are dedicating resources to it.
Make sure someone on the marketing team is responsible for PR strategy and implementation. Then make it part of their goals! Ensure that it is part of their performance evaluation to implement tactics that help achieve your strategy and report results to management. Try these tactics:
Establish a communications calendar. Frequently, organizations think of public relations as occasionally issuing press releases and standing in for a photo op. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t wait until relevant news knocks on your door; you need to proactively plan for and create it.
The responsible party should document all of the events relevant to your community and how you participate in them. But when you think of community, don’t only think of geography; you should think about what’s relevant to your SEGs as well.
Document in the calendar what events you sponsor or where your employees volunteer throughout the year. The ideal situation is that you have something relevant going on every month. If there is a gap in your calendar, you should be looking for ways to participate in something relevant to your SEGs and your community.
Make media contacts and check editorial calendars. Recognize the importance of working with the media and be proactive. Call your local papers, chamber of commerce and community organizations to find out who covers the topics of business and community.
Go a step farther and get to know your media contacts, and find out how you can make their jobs easier. Ask about formatting information, deadlines and about their organization’s editorial calendar.
Use the editorial calendar to make suggestions for articles and offer interviews with experts at your credit union. Be sure to time releases with relevant topics on the editorial calendar. Work together to make both of your jobs easier!
2. Document Your Story
The foundation of effective PR is consistency in message. To start, define the elements of your CU’s story. For example, if there were only one or two things someone would recall about your CU, what do you want them to remember? Start the development of your PR strategy by composing your story, including this main theme.
Often CUs mistakenly start their stories by elaborating on their humble beginnings. If you want your market to remember that you are convenient and have the latest technology, you probably don’t want to focus on communicating about the nine individuals who ran the CU out of a shoebox 60 years ago.
Keep your story simple and focus on who you are and who you aspire to be. Make it compelling and be consistent. Every piece of communication you produce should roll up to reinforce the essence of your CU’s story.
For example, if your story is rooted in serving the technology industry, all your communication, whether talking about a new product launch or the number of hours your employees volunteered in your community, should have the main theme of how your credit union helps serve the members of the technology industry.
Try these tactics:
- Write a boilerplate for your message. Compose one or two sentences that tell your organization’s story related to your mission or core purpose and then use this language consistently in your press releases, on your website, in your social media channels and in your member communications.
Your boilerplate should be reviewed annually to make updates to the facts, such as the number of members or branches, but should remain fundamentally consistent in message year-over-year.
- Document key words and phrases. Examine your mission, vision and values. They should be representative of your story and the direction of your brand. If they aren’t, you need to start your story development by revising them. If your mission, vision and values complement your story, look for and document commonalities in your language, such as how you speak to and with your members.
For example, if your mission includes the word “help,” then you need to ensure when you are telling your CU’s story that you use “help” rather than “assist.”
Do you have key service phrases that you ask employees to use with members? If so, those should enter into your documentation as well. It seems minor, but repetition is important.
3. Provide Relevant Content
The major value exchange between media outlets and your CU is that they get relevant content that informs their audience and you get to tell your story in an authentic way without paying for advertising. Know what is newsworthy! Stories that are relevant to the community are what propel your message to the forefront.
Reporters often are looking for experts to interview for news stories. Providing these experts should be an essential part of your PR strategy. To develop your expert position, you need to decide what topics your CU and key people in your organization can speak to authoritatively. Try these tactics:
- Create content buckets and a message map. Position your executives and/or board members as pundits. They haven’t risen to the top of their chosen discipline by chance. They are experts in their fields, so use them in your PR strategy. Interview your executives to find out what issues in IT, lending, marketing or operations they are passionate about and then craft a message sheet for each one.
- Next, integrate this into an overall message map for your CU. Each one of your executives should be communicating a different aspect of your story. For example, your CEO should talk big picture about why your CU does what it does—mission, vision, values—and how your CU works to help all members. Your lending executive might be an expert on the housing market, and your CFO should be able to speak about economic trends.
- Leverage your executives to broaden your story and demonstrate the credibility and expertise in your organization. Use the message map as a part of the communication calendar for your organization and make sure that your executives’ social media profiles are congruent with your map.
- Coach and train your experts to stay on message. While speaking on the topic at hand, your experts should remember that their job is to also tell the credit union’s story. Have them practice talking on topic and interjecting relevant connections to your CU’s mission, vision and values. Train them to avoid going off-message or turning an interview into a personal soap box. It’s a great idea to have them practice in front of a camera or record a mock interview numerous times before they go live with a reporter.
4. The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
You don’t want the first thing your community or potential business partners hear about you to be negative. The old adage “the best defense is a good offense” is also known as the strategic offensive principle. You gain a strategic advantage by proactively dominating the message. Be vigilant about monitoring what others say about your brand. Try these tactics:
- Google yourself and set alerts. Set a schedule and make it a responsibility of someone on your team to regularly search your CU’s name and the names of your board members and executives. It might seem silly, but that is the first thing a potential member, employee or business partner does to find out more about your credit union—they Google it! Similarly, set alerts for your key community and SEG contacts. This does two things: It lets you know when your CU or key personnel have received a mention, and perhaps more importantly, it lets you know when your key contact at a SEG is in the news. Now, you can reach out with congratulations or, if the news is bad, you can offer to help.
- Read reviews and establish responses. Read sites like yelp.com and glassdoor.com. Also make sure that you have a mechanism and consistent response for online reviews, good or bad. Reviews with no response send the message to your members and community that you don’t care and aren’t responsive.
A good PR strategy is the best way to help you raise awareness of your brand, maintain your relevance, establish credibility and save money. These are all an integral part of achieving growth for your CU. So the next time you listen to the ’80s station, think of the strategic shift that MTV imposed on the music industry and let it be a reminder to you of how powerful a shift in strategy from traditional marketing to an integrated PR and marketing strategy can be for your credit union.
Bryn C. Conway, CUDE, principal of BC Consulting, LLC, based in the Washington, D.C., area, is a long-time member of the credit union community and helps credit unions define their brands, develop their leaders and grow their market share.