Let’s face it: most financial stories in the media remain negative. Experts in the financial services sector find themselves in a unique position of being arbiters of coveted information — but information many will approach with suspicion and plenty of negative connotations.
Adam Bickelman, Director of Corporate and Non Profit for Schneider PR, said that while the media climate remains acerbic, it presents a prime opportunity for financial clients to discuss how they’ve separated themselves from the rest.
“The media narrative has skewed toward being skeptical of the financial services industry, so there are companies that are uniquely positioning themselves to capitalize on that ongoing media narrative,” Bickelman said. “A perfect example would be community banks. For them it’s not fighting a negative perception insomuch as promoting their value and ultimately showing how they’ve done things differently.”
The dos and don’ts of engagement
There’s no question the economy will play an integral role in the election this November. The market has remained unpredictable, job growth stagnant; it seems there’s a new scandal on Wall Street every month, and disappointing domestic job numbers are intertwined with headlines of economic crises in Europe that, no matter how far away, have contributed to a narrative making finance the top conversation at home.
Dean Trevelino, Principal at Trevelino/Keller, said offering hard data — whitepapers, quarterly reports — is something that’s especially appreciated by the media, as it often does a better job of highlighting salient trends than pundits filling out the 24-hours news cycle.
Trevelino said compelling data lends credibility to experts that can differentiate them from the competition. It also minimizes the risk of having their credibility damaged, because they’re relying on numbers instead of simply sharing their opinion.
“I think we’re seeing a bigger demand for reliable data now. Our clients can access real data by analyzing customer behavior, and the media likes the fact that they’re sourcing data that offers proof behind trends instead of just having someone say what they think,” Trevelino said.
Richard Dukas, President and CEO of Dukas Public Relations, said it’s important that financial experts stay on script when they go on-air. This means sticking to big-picture economic talk and avoiding being steered into making partisan endorsements.
“After Labor Day the media dialogue is really going to be dominated by the election,” Dukas said. “We’re talking to clients about how to discuss these things when they’re approached. Most of our clients are happy to talk big-picture policy, and we’re preparing them to have that conversation as long as they’re not looking to be partisan.”
“I don’t want to message my clients away from who they are, so I always tell them: be yourself. They’re the experts, there’s a reason why the media wants to speak with them,” Bickelman said. “However, when it comes to especially partisan stuff, I tell my clients to say what they want, but remember there’s a big portion of their cut base that may be on the opposite side of the aisle.”
Hesitant to embrace social media
Financial services clients have been trained — perhaps by a long line of mistakes made by others in the industry — to be prudent in what they say. Internally however, there are other factors that have shaped how financial services companies share their messages in outreach campaigns.
According to PR pros, many executives in the financial sector remain leery about the prospect of adopting a social media component to their communications initiatives, and it’s for this reason social media hasn’t yet penetrated the world of finance communications to the same degree it’s virtually enveloped brand outreach for consumer products.
Cultural and practical considerations could be cited as reasons for the reluctance. According to Dukas, many finance executives fully admit they don’t see any tangible gains in social media. Dukas said there’s even a belief among executives that social media “debases” their brand.
“For the hedge funds and investment banks, they don’t really care about social media yet,” Dukas said. “And that’s because the investors they’re looking to influence are simply not making decisions based on what they see on Facebook or Twitter. That’s not to say they’re not keeping an eye on it, but if you’re a hedge fund, whom are you targeting? You’re looking at large pension funds and institutions, and those people just aren’t hanging around on Twitter or Linkedin. They’re still reading the Journal and going to conferences, because that’s what is most important to them.”
Bickelman noted the resistance may be based in demographics more than culture. To financial executives the concept of social media may still seem like a novelty, whereas to the marketers who represent them they seem like untapped business potential. Bickelman also noted the real holdup in finance’s marriage with social media may have to do with compliance with SEC guidelines.
“I think companies are a more willing to dip their toe into digital waters once they recognize it’s something that’s not going away. There’s a willingness to experiment and see what’s out there, and have a well-versed counsel who understands the benefits of telling a story,” he said. “I think there’s a great opportunity there, but any step forward needs to be done with great scrutiny in compliance. The storytelling ultimately needs to be guided by marketing, but the compliance officer and the company’s operations folks need to be at the table.”
Trevelino said the reluctance to embrace social media has been changing, due primarily to new possibilities clients are now recognizing in these marketing spaces.
“Financial service clients were late to the game from a social media standpoint, but now we’re beginning to hear them ask how they can get in that game. They get that it’s an important channel for their message. For one, if you’re a financial services company and your clients are small business merchants, you can treat them like consumers because basically they are consumers — they’re getting their information from bloggers or Linkedin like everyone else. So, I think we’re going to see financial services companies becoming more aggressive with social media strategies, and we’re starting to deliver sophisticated considerations that work for them.”