Western Union's Helping Hands
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Western Union's Helping Hands

Following Hurricane Mitch, Western Union, as one of the leading money transfer companies in the world, was encouraged by MS&L to establish a global community relations project that would provide a long term helping hand to its consumers.

Paul Holmes

Following Hurricane Mitch, hundreds and thousands of Central Americans journeyed to the United States through a simple invitation late 1998 by President Clinton. It was an invitation to survive, to lend a helping hand to people whose lives were seriously devastated by a natural disaster.

Western Union, as one of the leading money transfer companies in the world, was encouraged by MS&L to establish a global community relations project that would provide a long term helping hand to its consumers. Its vision was to empower people around the world to make positive changes in their lives. The umbrella program, called Helping Hands, was created to allow for one global plan with flexibility to meet local needs. 

As a result of Bromley/MS&L is pilot program, Helping Hands will be the focus of PR initiatives for all Western Union Central and South American business units in 2001.  Western Union Honduras, Argentina, Africa and Hong Kong followed with similar projects. At an agent conference in October 2000, nearly all of the 46 Latin American and Caribbean agents allocated funds to support Helping Hands in 2001.


Bromley/MS&L conducted extensive phone and Internet research and determined that most post-Hurricane immigrants were arriving through the US/Mexico border towns from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua prior to resettling in major ADIs like New York and LA. Next, the agency surveyed non-profit organizations, universities, consulates, Hispanic chambers of commerce and churches that provided assistance to Central American immigrants to evaluate pressing needs and immigration and resettlement patterns. Focus groups with recent immigrants verified the need to “know before you go,” cultural and political sensitivities, credible resources and partners, and awareness, and decision patterns and use of money transfer services.  The agency reviewed Tomas Rivera Policy Institute remittance studies and learned that recent immigrants were the largest and most loyal senders of money transfers. However, receivers (in-country) also played a role in affecting which company the sender uses.  Through monitoring media reports on Central American refugees, immigration patterns and conditions of their homelands in the aftermath of the hurricanes, it was learned that in one month alone, the Salvadoran Central Bank recorded $153.4 million in remittances. As a result, the following plan was developed to reach and affect the bull's eye target and convert them to high-end long-term loyal consumers.


Through research, it was confirmed that senders were willing to pay premium prices for companies who exhibited commitment to the community. With this in mind, Bromley/MS&L saw Hurricane Mitch devastation in early 1999 as its opportunity to commit to the hundreds and thousands of Central Americans that journeyed to the United States with hopes of survival and a better life. With an urgent need to rebuild their homelands, and no existing brand loyalty to a remittance company, Western Union chose to test its global community relations’ initiatives in Central America. To bring to life its Spanish tagline, "Western Union es Confianza" (Western Union is Trust), Western Union molded Helping Hands programs to help meet pressing needs of the Central American people both in the US and in their homelands. In order to meet their needs, informational guide brochures were developed with non-profit organizations in sync with Helping Hands vision to meet the constituencies’ pressing needs. The agency recommended Western Union unveil the Helping Hands program in South Texas, a growing point-of -entry for Central American immigrants. Next, to create a push/pull effect, Helping Hands programs were customized by Bromley/MS&L for El Salvador and Nicaragua, countries where remittances are the nation's primary economic sources. Potential Central American core money transfer senders and receivers, influencers, internal agent network and media, all in major Central American markets in the US, El Salvador and Nicaragua were identified as target audience.


Reach 60 percent of Salvadoran and Nicaraguan communities in-country and in the US via media efforts

Boost Central American Money Transfer (CAMT) transactions in key corridors (US/El Salvador, US/Nicaragua) through goodwill efforts

Build emotional ties among CAMT senders and receivers, and among their influencers 


1.) The Western Union Helping Hands program was unveiled at an immigrant shelter in Brownsville, Texas with the introduction of immigrant "survival guides" produced by Bromley/MS&L. The agency selected five non-profits to compile information covering Education, Money Matters, Labor Rights, Immigration Laws and Health Issues. Community and media outreach in key Texas markets were conducted prior to and after the event. 2.) Helping Hands enabled the Salvadoran Consulate to extend educational programs for Salvadoran immigrants in the US and those returning to a "new" El Salvador after many years of political unrest and guerilla warfare. Market tours were conducted with the Consul in the major Salvadoran ADIs of Houston, Los Angeles and New York to discuss changes in immigration laws and the re-integration challenges. A Welcome Back to El Salvador program which included informational guides, a video and Western Union branded bags with toiletries were produced and introduced at a news conference at El Salvador's Presidential Palace with its Vice President. 3.) Western Union supported the American-Nicaraguan Foundation with a public health education initiative valued at $12 million, reaching 7,200 people daily in Nicaragua. An integrated Western Union Helping Hands branded marketing campaign was developed with pre-produced TV PSA's, posters to display at health clinics, coloring pages for school distribution, brochures for senior centers, day care centers and pharmacies, all educating people on the prevention of the most life-threatening diseases in Nicaragua. A stateside awareness component is scheduled for December 12,2 000 in Miami (the largest Nicaraguan community outside of Managua).

Response to Challenges      

Shortly before unveiling in the US, in the launch market was switched to avert a potential crisis 

The agency had to cope with poor infrastructure (i.e., phone, fax and resources) in Central America

Internal political struggles in one Central American country waylaid the program until one month from launch 

One day prior to launch in El Salvador, the news conference venue was changed due to the death of a politician

The agency contacted 70 non-profit entities before selecting the primary beneficiaries in the US, Nicaragua and El Salvador to ensure partnerships were with transparent non-profits that reached core consumers.


Reach 60 percent of Salvadoran and Nicaraguan communities in-country and in the US via strategic media efforts

Initial launch coverage reached two million targeted impressions in Texas and Mexico border cities, blanketing the combined Salvadoran and Nicaraguan US populations of 810,000.

Market tours with the Salvadoran Consulate were conducted in Houston, Los Angeles, and New York, home to 67% of US Salvadorans; the Consul spoke on behalf of Western Union’s efforts with immigrants in-country and in the US

The Nicaraguan campaign launch reached six million targeted impressions in Nicaragua and United States, greater than the population of the entire country (5.2 million people). 

Most all of El Salvador’s media (39 representatives) attended the event in El Salvador; The Salvadoran program generated five million positive impressions, more than seven times the population of San Salvador (660,000). 

Western Union’s Helping Hands program was mentioned in all print placements; Western Union’s “help” was mentioned in 54% of headlines and 61% of photos; partnerships with influencer groups were visible in 33% of headlines and 73% of photos.

Boost CAMT transactions in key corridors (US/El Salvador, US/Nicaragua) through goodwill efforts 

Transactions from Los Angeles to El Salvador nearly doubled; and jumped almost 70% from Houston to El Salvador.

The Western Union team exceeded an aggressive 2000 plan by approximately 50% in both revenues and number of transactions and contributed the greatest percentage of all incremental transactions from Central America. The 2001 plan anticipates 60% of region revenues to come from this area.

Build emotional ties among CAMT senders and receivers, and among their influencers 

Meetings with consulates and community leaders from four Central American countries were conducted in Los Angeles, New York, Houston and Chicago to introduce them to the Helping Hands programs; influencers were used as spokespeople.

100 Central American refugees, immigration legal aid organizers and shelter administrators attended the Brownsville launch.

Helping Hands educational brochures were distributed at Western Union locations in key US Central American communities. "They go quickly. I have to replace them all the time," noted a Western Union agent network representative.  Brochures were distributed at events in Houston, attracting 5,000 Central Americans, and in Los Angeles, attracting nearly 40,000 Central Americans.  1,500 brochures were distributed in one day at border town shelters.  A total of 12,750 brochures were shipped to Hispanic immigrant aid providers throughout Texas. An additional print run was made and thousands were sent on request directly to Central America. “They’re everywhere in Honduras,” said a Western Union Marketing Manager.  “These brochures are detailed with a lot of useful and accurate facts," said an immigration attorney.

Western Union met airplanes full of “repatriados” (returning Salvadorans) at the San Salvador airport and distributed "Welcome Home" informational brochures and Western Union product/services literature in branded bags.

The program forged closer links to the Salvadoran community in the US and in country (Catholic Relief Services, the Vice President, External Affairs, Embassy, Chancery and Consulate).
More than 85 people (including health care providers and Western Union agents from throughout Nicaragua) attended the launch, featuring the minister of health.

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