Time to Overhaul Financial Sector PR

Do you trust the firm you've entrusted your retirement savings to? I mean, really trust them? Because this week, if you don't, or if your investment manager was Lehman Bros., you're having a bad week, and you're looking at more of the same for awhile.

And if you're in financial services PR? Toss the last 15 years of messaging and get out a fresh sheet of paper, because it's time to get busy. Whatever else has happened, there's been a major cataclysm in the financial sector that has rendered all past messaging useless. All those claims about how great your firm was, how rock solid and trustworthy you were, how you understood the market risks and had wonderful systems to beat the market? Gone.

What to say now? It boils down to two main points, depending on the state of your balance sheet and near-term prospects:

  1. If your financials are strong (I mean really strong, not house-of-cards strong) then it's time to go big and say, "we're solid, you can rely on us, we didn't take the risks others did, and here's proof."
  2. If your financials ain't so strong, but you don't think you're going to go under, then it's time to say "we're still here, we're working hard to continue to earn your trust."
Then of course, there's the third course of action: getting your resume into shape and posting it.

What else to think about? Ad Age did an interview with some financial PR leaders in New York. Here are some quotes:

  • "Now's not the time to hide under a rock if the market has questions about your financial stability," said Paul Jensen, head of Weber Shandwick's corporate practice. "Companies need to rise above fear and continue to communicate. Control what you can and don't get fixated on what you can't. The old rules of transparency and consistency still apply."
  • Richard Myers, head of Edelman's New York financial practice, said the message has to be one of believability and trust. "Two iconic brands [Bear Stearns and Lehman] that people believed in for years have suddenly shattered people's trust, and other firms seem close behind," he said. "It is almost like many in the industry are being seen as having been unfaithful, and it is going to take more than sending flowers to build back the trust."
  • Neil Parker, global head of strategy at Wolff Olins, believes that simply changing the ad messaging isn't enough: a "fundamental" shift in branding needs to take place, including doing away with the empty claims and anxiety-inducing tactics. "Stop having brands be about claims of trustworthiness and have brands be about making you more worthy of trust," he said. "AIG's tagline is 'The Strength to Be There' and the company nearly disappears in a puff of smoke. These taglines are exposed as empty claims."