The majority of financial services companies (66 percent) have been silent when it comes to communicating their response to the troublesome economy on their corporate websites, according to a survey by leading global public relations firm Weber Shandwick that examined the home pages of 55 U.S. and European financial services companies on a weekly basis since mid-October.
Surprisingly, home page communications steadily increased from mid-October to mid-February (27 percent to 45 percent), but dropped precipitously during the last week of February for no single reason. Only two mentioned the Bernie Madoff fraud over the five-month period.
When financial services firms did communicate, three main messages appeared most often: general economy updates and statistics (up to 33 percent in February 2009 from 19 percent in mid-October 2008), company strength and longevity (25 percent from 19 percent) and, least frequently but arguably the most important during difficult times, direct efforts to reassure customers and other visitors about their personal financial security (12 percent from 15 percent).
“Since corporate home pages are a prime gateway to a company’s positioning, messaging and reputation, we examined them to determine how an industry under intense scrutiny rises to the challenge of building trust in tough times,” says Barb Iverson, president of Weber Shandwick’s financial services industry practice group. “It is not enough for leading financial services companies to communicate only in good times.
“Our ongoing analysis leads us to recommend to financial services companies that they use their low-cost/high-impact home pages to communicate more directly and personally with their stakeholders by acknowledging and addressing customer and investor financial concerns.”
Despite the smaller number of European or EMEA financial services firms examined, a greater percentage of them (38 percent) were early communicators on their home pages compared to U.S. peers (30 percent). European/EMEA financial services firms may have reacted more quickly when their banks experienced capitalization crises in September and sought funding from the government and Middle Eastern investors. U.S. companies, however, caught up to and surpassed their European/EMEA peers in using home page communications over the five months of the analysis.
By a wide margin, securities firms are currently the most likely to communicate about the crisis on their home pages. All securities firms (100 percent) were doing so at the end of February. Commercial banks did not communicate via their home pages about the economic crisis as often as securities firms did in mid-October but began communicating more strongly in November.
The most common messaging methods employed by the financial services firms examined are corporate statements, commentaries and reports (up to 34 percent in February 2009 from 19 percent in mid-October 2008) and videos, audio casts and Webcasts (up to 14 percent from 10 percent). The least frequently used type of home page communications formats are press releases, newsletters and executive speeches.
When financial services firms addressed the economic crisis on their home pages, they sometimes linked to a message from a company executive, most likely the CEO or chairman (up to 24 percent in February 2009 from 13 percent in mid-October 2008) although sometimes other executives were utilized. CEOs/Chairmen may have been communicating in the media to articulate their messages about the challenging economic marketplace. However, when CEOs or chairmen were used on company home pages, they helped to humanize the economic crisis and put a face on the company.
Weber Shandwick’s Iverson concludes: “High anxiety undoubtedly causes many people to seek information about the health of the companies in which they entrust savings and investments or do business with on a regular basis. For many, the Web sites of these financial services companies are one of the first places that customers, investors and others go to in search of information and reassurance.”
The firm recommends several messages that financial services companies should incorporate on their home pages:
· Feature useful and actionable information: a glossary of terms frequently mentioned in the media about the crisis (e.g., “TARP” or “APS” stimulus and protection packages), FAQs, hot-line numbers, contact names and pictures, description of how the stimulus package is expected to impact customer accounts/investments, etc.
· Craft messages that convey empathy about the crisis and acknowledge customers’ confusion and concerns; recognize the challenging market conditions and the potential for loss of trust and identify specific products that are safe and secure.
· Tap into effective social media tools: podcasts, webcasts, blogs and customer discussion forums can engage stakeholders and make the financial services firm relationship more personal and interactive.