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The Case for a Different Approach to Financial Services Public Relations

While no one can pinpoint the exact origin of public relations, it has long been a part of civilized human communications. The Roman Empire, Asian dynasties, English monarchies and French regimes all had official “historians” who presented “facts” in a way that suited the interests of the prevailing rulers. Many of these altered truths have survived through the years as recorded history.

The Genesis of the Modern PR Industry

The first book devoted entirely to public relations, Persuasion, was published in England in 1919 and heralded the dawn of a new profession. In our country, the beginning of formalized public relations can be traced to the World War I “Public Information Officers” who were trained to deal with the press. Returning to private life, many of these individuals began to advise businesses on how to create and/or improve their public images.

John D. Rockefeller’s response to his “public image” problems provided an early example of the power of this young profession. An extremely unpopular figure due to his vast wealth and reputed miserly business practices, Rockefeller employed Ivy Lee, the most renowned public relations counselor of the day, to help him shape a new image. Among other things, Lee advised Rockefeller to distribute dimes to the public wherever he appeared. This practice became John D’s trademark and enabled him to not only evidence his generosity, but also attract a cheering crowd wherever he went. Mission accomplished.

Like John D., we all project personal “brand values” through our appearance, style of dress, speech, mannerisms and body language. Representative examples of these silent, but highly expressive messages include:

  • Shoes An integral part of personal PR messaging, footwear makes strong statements to others through both their condition and style.
  • Timepiece With a great divergence of styles and costs, you can be sure that watches tell more than just the time.
  • Smile A readily accessible but vastly underutilized asset. While a smile is always there to be mobilized, most underestimate its use as a persuasive message vehicle.

And on and on it goes. Every day, countless messages create an individual’s persona by either reinforcing the “truth” or, as is too often the case, sending signals that are out of sync with that person’s “true character.” Every individual sends a stream of messages that causes others to form judgments about them—most often in the first few minutes of contact.

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The Complexities of Modern Corporate PR

In a commercial context, an organization creates public perceptions through a similar, but much more complex, messaging system. The endless range of corporate messaging elements includes: the company logo; the color and appearance of corporate materials; the content, design and accessibility of the corporate Web presence; office décor; the appearance of the staff; and virtually every interface with key constituencies. Organizations must carefully manage all aspects of their messages to successfully project their self-perceived corporate reality. As the accompanying illustration demonstrates, there is often no such thing as a single reality. Therefore, the essence of good Public Relations lies in

  • identifying which corporate messages to communicate—i.e., which “reality” to project
  • delivering those messages in a way that will properly influence each constituency’s perceptions, attitudes and behavior.

What makes Public Relations unique among marketing tools is its ability to announce, explain or validate other marketing initiatives. Strong PR support can not only help raise awareness of other promotional efforts, but can also provide an invaluable third-party imprimatur. Marketing promotions provide a platform for a company to declare, “We are great.” Public Relations creates a corroborating chorus that informs the public that, “They are great.”

More and More of the Same

Surprisingly, few financial services firms have found the corporate context to tap the full potential of PR. Most are busy developing press releases that relate daily business activities rather than creating newsworthy stories. In fact, a study of almost 400,000 press releases by Dow Jones Factiva revealed that the twenty most commonly used words and phrases, in order of frequency of usage were:

  • 1. next generation
  • 2. flexible
  • 3. robust
  • 4. world class
  • 5. Scalable
  • 6. easy to use
  • 7. cutting edge
  • 8. well-positioned
  • 9. mission critical
  • 10. marketing leading
  • 11. industry standard
  • 12. turnkey
  • 13. groundbreaking
  • 14. best of breed
  • 15. enterprise class
  • 16. user friendly
  • 17. enterprise wide
  • 18. interoperable
  • 19. extensive
  • 20. breakthrough

Trite releases only add to marketplace clutter with repetitive statements that echo each other.

PR and the Financial Services Industry

Financial services organizations have been slow to adopt sophisticated PR techniques. Many still mistakenly believe that the traditional prolific distribution of press releases constitutes an effective PR approach. We have created our own brand of Public Relations, referred to as Media Marketing, to help our clients effectively manage their public relations messaging within the unique dynamics of the financial services marketing environment.

Media Marketing is rooted in extensive planning, a vastly over-used word that describes a mostly underused function in the PR arena. Our approach focuses on achieving strategic objectives by tailoring persuasive interpretations of corporate messages for select media in order to effectively communicate with carefully defined target markets. We understand that the key to receiving the right press coverage and raising visibility in the marketplace is the significance of the issues addressed. Accordingly, Media Marketing harnesses the technical and intellectual expertise within client organizations to address important financial issues that are of interest to their target media.

The Bottom Line

Public Relations generally requires only modest expenditures and can often provide significant rewards. A well planned and effectively orchestrated Public Relations program can help establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between a financial services organization and its constituencies.