Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Credit Union PR: Why Confine It To The Back Seat?

As the month of May fast approaches, we'll soon find the college graduation season upon us and the awarding of degrees—Bachelors, Masters, Doctorates, and let’s not forget honorary degrees. So it won’t be any surprise when we hear and read about such folks as the POTUS or Warren Buffet or Captain Sullenberger receiving an honorary degree. That’s part of the annual May ritual. But, did you ever stop to consider why these and other dignitaries and celebrities are being recognized in this way? Are we to believe that the degrees were bestowed in a vacuum, devoid of any strategy as to how the recipients will influence and benefit the institution? Of course not!

A lot of factors go into the nomination process for honorary degree recipients, from how they would attract publicity and foster alumni donor support, to how they reflect the values of the institution and can help open the door to new opportunities. Sometimes the rationale can be as simple as forming a relationship that will eventually develop over time to see the recipient becoming a major benefactor of the institution.

OK, so you’re wondering what does this have to do with credit unions. What is it about honorary degrees that can apply to credit unions and their business strategies? Here’s how I see it.

When we speak of an image or branding campaign that promotes the credit union difference, I can easily see the honorary degree model serving as a highly valuable template for credit unions to emulate.

However, before that can successfully occur, there are a few things we ought to assess. I’m talking about our understanding of image campaigns and from what I’ve seen just last week at the ball park, I have to wonder what’s going on. Have some of the folks responsible for image campaigns just become all too complacent in their understanding of branding initiatives, or are they unable to devote the proper amount of time to such initiatives given the workloads they carry? Not only does this pose a problem but the campaigns I saw were just downright bland in their creativity. I mean no disrespect, but that’s the impression these campaigns had on me.

Then again, maybe there’s a lot more going on that’s contributing to what I was experiencing. For instance, why is it that when we talk image and branding, a majority of credit union folks feel the compulsion to immediately think about taglines and logos, and possibly the interior decoration of branches as the only way a credit union brand is expressed? It frustrates me to see this confining attitude and misunderstanding of what “brand” actually is. It’s as if minds have become frozen, locked in a marketing-centric paralysis that only sees the importance of catering to sales and advertising.

I’m sure there are many who would disagree with my assessment, but let me be clear, my point is this: marketers must have their eyes focused on selling the credit union’s products and services as their primary responsibility. Community outreach and branding (creating a distinct experience of the credit union through all its touch points) is for them, secondary to sales and delivering the numbers. Yet isn’t community outreach, branding and the credit union’s reputation in the marketplace equally as important as sales, particularly in a cooperative business model? Are we not about “people;” people helping people?

This is why I advocate that credit unions employ a public relations officer in addition to the marketing officer, because community outreach and branding can too easily become lost in a mix of product ads, sales strategies and MCIF (Marketing Customer Information File) mining. Public relations delivers its own unique value to the overall sales strategy of a co-op, and it should not be overlooked or underestimated.

A fully-engaged PR effort is too important to load on the back of the marketing officer where it does not get the kind of attention it rightly deserves. In my opinion, by not acknowledging a PR/marketing distinction and relegating it to the back seat by lumping it on the long list of responsibilities reserved only for the marketing officer, we are all overlooking a critical deficiency in the way we manage credit union image and reputation in the marketplace, and by doing so, we continue to feed impediments to our own success!

While it’s true that my opinion vis-à-vis public relations and marketing reflects a debate that’s been going on for decades among all PR and marketing professionals, it’s also true that credit unions can benefit by thinking a little differently about the role of public relations at their shops, how they manage their image campaigns and of course, how the honorary degree model might be used to foster brand awareness.

I see three takeaways.

1) By instituting an award campaign that publicly recognizes individuals in the community for the way they exemplify credit union values, your shop can bring a whole new dimension to its reputation and image in the community. This might be a new imaging idea to many, but I believe it’s certainly an effort worth discussing.

2) Consider refining the award programs currently being conducted throughout the credit union community to go beyond recognizing one of our own. Once again, let me be very clear; there's nothing wrong with recognizing our own and the practice needs to continue. The occasional pat on the back is good, but it seems that the stories of the heroic people we celebrate never get conveyed beyond the credit union walls. They only internally energize the credit union community.

What I do recommend is that current programs also recognize others outside the credit union community with whom we should consider forming special relationships, much like the way colleges select honorary degree recipients. Imagine how the Wegner Awards might look if they also recognized, let’s say, someone like Vice President Biden for his legislation with Claiborne Pell that eventually provided funding to launch Credit Union Development Education—which is now an international program—or someone who cherishes the principle of cooperation over competition, like Hollywood producer Tom Shadyac has demonstrated in his current documentary film, “I Am.”

3) Let’s re-evaluate our understanding of public relations and the strategies that flow from it. They are not intended to sell products and services. PR is not slick marketing or advertising but a tool for building relationships through brand awareness and positive publicity. In doing what it does best, PR helps to cultivate the sales process by serving as a catalyst for marketing and advertising to then engage customers in the business of the organization. While PR and marketing may exist as separate disciplines, let there be no doubt that they are aligned as partners for the same goal—the success of the organization.