Bankers accustomed to lending money are moonlighting as public relations professionals these days to project an image of strength
The unusual step of launching campaigns to sooth jittery customers about the safety of their deposits follows an economic
crisis that has brought down investment banks and sent stock values plummeting.
Placing advertisements and personally contacting consumers are a few of the steps banks are taking to communicate the message.
A recent Gallup poll found Americans’ faith in U.S. banks had fallen, with 32 percent expressing a lot of confidence. That
was down 9 percentage points from June 2007.
New York-based Chase, which has more than 90 branches in the Indianapolis area, began reaching out to customers by telephone
last month, bank spokeswoman Nancy Norris said.
"Now is not the time to do anything based on fear and panic," she said. "That’s really what our communication
has been all
Scores of banks either have stopped lending or tightened loan standards in light of the subprime mortgage meltdown. But financial
experts insist deposits are safer than they’ve ever been. The FDIC last month raised its cap on federally insured deposits
from $100,000 to $250,000.
There is further cause for optimism. The U.S. Treasury Department plans to purchase as much as $250 billion of preferred stock
in up to thousands of small to large banks and thrifts as a way to spur lending to consumers and businesses. Once the financial
markets stabilize and recover, the banks are expected to buy the stock back from the government.
Still, restoring consumer confidence in the financial system could take weeks or even months. So banks that may not bear any
responsibility for the credit crunch but are feeling the fallout are taking unprecedented steps to distance themselves from
Old National Bancorp President Bob Jones is writing letters to customers to keep them apprised of the latest developments
affecting the banking industry.
His latest, dated Oct. 17, assured customers the Evansville-based bank has never engaged in the type of high-risk lending
that may be plaguing larger rivals. Highlighting Old National’s stability, Jones mentions the bank will celebrate its 175th
anniversary next year.
He closes the letter by providing the phone number to his direct line, which has prompted up to 30 calls a day, said Randy
Reichmann, president of the bank’s Indianapolis region.
"[Jones] will stay on this until he’s confident it’s not on anybody’s mind anymore," Reichmann said. "We want
to make sure
people understand it’s a safe place for them to put their money."
The National Bank of Indianapolis, the largest locally based bank, is running advertisements in local publications proclaiming
it to be "as strong as a block of Indiana limestone."
The ad attributes the bank’s success to several factors, including its profitability every quarter for 14 consecutive years
and its decision to avoid subprime loans.
Besides appearing in print, the promotional pieces are given to bankers to present to clients as well as prospects, said Morris
Maurer, president of the National Bank of Indianapolis.
"My sense of the matter is that the public is generally concerned," he said. "They’re bombarded constantly
with scary news.
I think most people don’t fully understand it. They want some assurance."
Another advertisement promoting the bank’s third-quarter success will follow.
Milwaukee-based M&I Bank is taking a similar path. One of its advertisements states: "Peace of mind starts with M&I
strength and stability." The bank’s $60 billion in assets and 160 years in business are points M&I stresses.
Marketing professionals such as Barbara Coles, president of locally based Coles Marketing Communications Inc., praise the
approach. They often encourage clients to get in front of a crisis and explain the circumstances rather than ignore the situation
and hope it goes away.
"It’s very important to be honest and transparent, and to just give the facts," Coles said. "More than ever,
it’s a time for
good, consistent communication."
For bankers at Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank, that typically means speaking to customers face to face. But even when a
sense of normalcy returns to the financial sector, banks likely will advertise more than usual, predicted John Pelizzari,
president of Fifth Third in central Indiana.
Part of the reason is that consumers don’t realize many banks continue to lend. Competition for deposits also is going to
remain strong, he said.
"It is pretty much business as usual," Pelizzari said. "There’s just a heightened awareness about the economy."
Jerry Engle, president of Lincoln Bank in Plainfield, shared his sentiments. He’s preparing to launch a campaign that could
include both advertisements and letters to customers.
With roughly $550 million in local deposits, Lincoln is much smaller than national competitors that boast billions of dollars
in local deposits and mostly has been insulated from the credit crunch.
The number of inquiries Engle has fielded from customers has dropped from a high of about a half-dozen a week since the FDIC
raised the insurance cap. But he will continue providing additional reassurances and reminders that the bank continues to
"People are being more cautious," he said. "It’s appropriate, but I’d hate to think they feel like they can’t