May 5, 2011
Credit Union Management’s online-only “PR Insight” column runs the first Thursday of every month.
The past three years have given credit unions a great deal of news, information and events to share with employees, members and the media. While we as communicators look forward to being the bearer of good news – maybe even revel in it – we must also be prepared to quickly, professionally and comprehensively share bad news.
The decision to close a branch or drastically reduce your workforce is not made easily. It can, however, be handled in a way that helps your employees move on, keeps your members engaged and minimizes negative media coverage. Just like crisis communications – and we recommend you include this scenario in your preparedness plan – the keys to maintaining your brand, while sharing bad news remain constant. Plan. Tell the truth. Tell it quickly.
Develop the Right Message
In the best of situations, your board has seen this step coming, made every effort to avoid it and eventually opted for the most sound business decision possible. Maybe your credit union’s growth strategy changed and maintaining a remote branch is a challenge. The board could have decided to invest more resources into expanding your quickest growing and most-used branches. Your credit union may be moving toward providing more products and services online.
You do not need to apologize for making a tough decision. You do, however, need to:
- Identify your stakeholders impacted by the closure or layoffs.
- Prioritize your stakeholders:
- members, and
- Identify the right message for each stakeholder.
- Share the message with compassion.
Engage Your Employees
While your board discussions may be behind closed doors, your employees know something is wrong. They see stories of businesses closing on the local news, they notice a decrease in branch traffic or their schedules, and they hear the accusations of other employees.
Instead of letting your branch turn into a gossip mill with decreased employee productivity and increased negativity that may impact your members, share business updates with your employees. Consider challenging them to help the branch – do they have ideas that might improve traffic or efficiency? By engaging your employees early, you give them time to absorb the bad news and factor it into their professional development as well as family finances.
When it is time to let employees go and/or close the branch, follow these basic crisis spokesperson strategies:
- Treat everyone with respect.
- Be thoughtful and precise in your use of words.
- Listen as carefully as you speak.
Be Prepared to Communicate Externally
While employees should always be the first to know of credit union news, you can expect them to share it with their families and, therefore, the community. Make sure your messages and communication channels are set for your members before making the final announcement internally.
Given the prominence of bank closures in the news, it will be important to educate your members on the difference between closing one or a few locations and shuttering a financial institution to a halt. Share with members – if truthful – that this is a step toward better serving them in more robust and centrally located branches. You can also highlight the expansion of online and remote services that let your members bank conveniently from their home computer or wherever they carry their cell phone.
Your message can be shared through:
- signs in the branch, showcasing other nearby locations;
- articles in your newsletter on how to use online and remote services;
- direct mail with local branch locations highlighted on a map;
- emails that promote online and remote services with free tutorials or trials; and
- an up-to-date website with all locations and services clearly outlined.
Given the increased use of social media by credit unions, their employees and their members, you may want to consider monitoring social media conversations about your credit union. What is being said on Twitter? Are employees and members posting to Facebook?
Respond to Media Inquiries
Regardless of how thorough and positive your messaging is, there will be an article that reads, “XYZ Credit Union Closing Branches.” This does not mean, however, that you should avoid media inquiries. The story could be wrought with inaccuracies, and it definitely won’t highlight the growth of other branches in your network or the use of online and remote services by your members unless you are able to contribute those details to the story.
Instead of leaving this to chance, consider sharing your news with one editor or reporter with whom you have formed a good relationship. If one newspaper breaks the news, others in the community may run smaller articles. Depending on the size of your community and number of media inquiries you receive, you can either conduct an interview or share answers to interview questions in writing.
You will also need to dedicate a portion of your morning and afternoon to monitoring media coverage. What articles have been written? What is the tone of the article? Is it incorrect in any way? Is there a cause for alarm or simply media accurately reporting the news?
As I stated earlier, you do not have to apologize for making a sound business decision. You must, however, recognize that branch closures and layoffs do have an impact on employees and the community. As a result, you should approach sharing the news with great care. Plan. Tell the truth. Tell it quickly.
Elizabeth McMillan, APR, is a group director for William Mills Agency, the nation’s largest independent financial services and technology public relations firm. Follow William Mills Agency on Twitter as well as check out its FinTech Marketing blog.