Mark ThabitSome financial institutions, banks in particular, have turned to corporate social responsibility to give back, develop credibility, and regain consumer trust and confidence that waned in the wake of the U.S. financial downturn. 

Since 2008, Americans have lost confidence in banks at an alarming rate. According to yearly Gallup polls, just 22% of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks between 2009 and 2012, down from 53% in 2004.

Banks are not trusted, and they’re certainly not admired. In the Reputation Institute’s 2015 list of the world’s 100 most reputable companies, banks were completely absent.

As CSR has moved from buzzword to communication cornerstone, Cision’s Global Insights team looked at the media coverage of multiple banks from the first half of 2015 to uncover the nature and impact of their CSR coverage, and determine takeaways.

O'Dwyer's Aug. '15 Financial/IR and Professional Services PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Aug. '15 Financial/IR and Professional Services PR Magazine

The results show that earned media around CSR was a major driver of banks’ positive coverage, accounting for up to 20% of positive news items. Additionally, banks with the highest proportion of CSR coverage had the highest percentage of positive coverage and the lowest percentage of negative coverage.

Here are some other insights, which can be applied to any business:

Local news matters

Although 71% of the bank coverage compiled by Cision came from national outlets like Bloomberg, CNBC-TV or American Banker, the majority of CSR coverage (86%) came from local outlets. Local television stations and newspapers want to cover banks’ community-oriented news — and residents are consuming that content.

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study of three cities (Denver, Macon and Sioux City), local TV was residents’ dominant source of news, watched “often” by 58 to 68% of each city’s residents. Local newspapers also fared well, “often” read by 23 to 40% of residents.

Sure, a placement in The Wall Street Journal or a top industry publication will wow the C-suite and can produce huge results. However, too often in fighting for those placements, brands miss out on local coverage, which can be easier to obtain and reaches a plugged-in and caring audience.

Help those that align with your business

For CSR to make an impact, it needs to be a genuine effort and involve an area of interest for brands.

For example, banks strong in mortgage lending often support organizations like Habitat for Humanity or NeighborWorks America, to help increase home ownership, provide affordable housing or combat homelessness.

Banks focusing on business or government clients announce initiatives to revitalize municipalities, like the struggling city of Detroit, or offered grants for small business start-ups.

Other initiatives that support bank interests on the periphery include donating to organizations that focus on youth STEM programs or employing military veterans. Taking a long-term lens, it’s easy to see how individuals helped by these programs could one day become an employee. 

Give based on corporate values

CSR doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to a product or service. What matters more is that it impacts the right audience. As long as this initiative reflects the company’s values, it will be seen as genuine.

Support of AIDS research, schools, food banks, the arts and climate change research doesn’t match the primary business lines of banks. But by acting on their internal values and reaching out to local communities, where many of their employees live, work and play, they establish an inextricable connection between brand and employee, brand and consumer, and even brand and employee.

Don’t forget the workplace

CSR isn’t just about communities; it’s about employees. It involves how employees are treated, valued and supported, and taps into their diverse interests and backgrounds.

Maureen Calabrese, Cision’s Chief People Officer, says CSR tends to be public relations-driven or human resources-driven. CSR initiatives run by the public relations department focus on winning over target audiences, developing influencer relationships or establishing thought leadership.

CSR run by human resources drives employee engagement, cohesion and loyalty because they are focused on employee passion points.

Studies have found that happy employees lead to higher productivity and profitability. Several banks had programs that matched employee donations, supported and awarded employee volunteerism and even included paid leaves of absence for philanthropic causes.

Many banks understand their employees reflect the diverse communities from which they come, and as they build support for various groups (LGBT, ethnic and women) into their own culture, they promote those values internally and externally.

Moving forward with CSR

The media environment for banks, which bottomed out in 2011, is getting better. Favorable positioning of banks as community supporters has increased every year since 2011, growing the amount of positive coverage and cutting the amount of negative coverage.

In 2011, roughly one-third of bank news items were negative — that figure has fallen to 13% so far this year. The percentage of positive news rose 5 points during the same time frame.

The overall quality of bank coverage as measured by Cision’s PR Recall score has also increased every year since 2011, and is now more than three times higher (+19% on a scale of -100% to +100%). There is room for further improvement, but the direction of each of these metrics is encouraging. 

There are many forces that impact the quality of banks’ media coverage, including earnings, products, lawsuits, regulatory pressures and stock. While some of these forces cause communicators to jump into reactionary mode, CSR coverage can be a constant, proactive strategy that improves difficult times and makes good times even better.

By no means should financial institutions or any brand see CSR as a quick fix. It’s a long-term strategy to establish or rebuild. Look no further than banks. Their progress shows how community outreach can improve a brand’s standing and bolster a battered brand.

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Mark Thabit is CMO of Cision.