Bringing Banking Services to the Previously Disadvantaged
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Bringing Banking Services to the Previously Disadvantaged

A program that showed public relations making a positive difference in society, and achieving a real business result, as two million “previously disadvantaged” citizens opened bank accounts—many of them for the first time.

Paul Holmes

The best campaign in our European SABRE Awards came from South Africa (no, it’s not in Europe, but we accept entries from all across Europe, the Middle East and Africa) and managed to accomplish the two things judges like best: it showed public relations making a positive difference in society, and it showed public relations achieving a real business result, as two million “previously disadvantaged” citizens opened bank accounts—many of them for the first time.

The South African banking industry faces a major challenge. More than 13 million South Africans have been excluded from the formal banking system over generations, creating a significant population whose savings strategy is often quite literally to store their money under their mattresses.

To address the imbalances of the past and to make banking accessible to all South Africans, especially those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, in 2004 the South African government launched the Financial Services Charter in 2004. Among other things, the charter required banks to create a model that would help overcome the problem of limited access to banking facilities, by ensuring that all South Africans were within a minimum 20 kilometer radius of banking services by 2007.

In response, five major institutions, including the four major commercial banks and the South African Post Office, a traditional custodian of the nation’s savings, joined forces under the auspices of the Banking Association of South Africa, a non-profit organization funded and managed by its members, to create a solution that would help overcome previous issues and “take banking to the people.”

Together, association members launched a new transactional bank account—the Mzansi account—with low bank charges designed to give individuals from previously disadvantaged backgrounds access to banking facilities.

In September 2004, just six weeks prior to the launch of the new account, Fleishman-Hillard South Africa was retained by the Banking Association of South Africa to create awareness and acceptance of the Mzansi initiative amongst key stakeholders, including government, organized labor, consumer groups, employers, the media and the public at large.

It was clear from Fleishman’s pre-launch research that the association faced public relations challenges.

Due to the historic structure of the banking sector in South Africa, with its limited number of large competitors, negative perceptions prevailed among key stakeholders, including government, organized labor and the media. The skepticism was captured by the financial editor of one of the nation’s leading daily newspapers, who commented that: “Until there is a Big Brother monitoring Mzansi, I can’t see how the people are going to benefit. Another way for the banks to benefit – a gravy train from the township to the banks. Access to services is the biggest need for the unbanked; banks have to change the way they do banking.”

To overcome such skepticism in the short time available, Fleishman proposed a communications strategy that would identify key opinion leaders in all the critical stakeholder groups; reach out individually to them to address their concerns, enhance their understanding of the Mzansi account (the names derives from the Zulu word for South Africa), and obtain their support and advocacy; encourage the unbanked sector of the public at large to open an Mzansi account; and make the opening of such an account a pleasant and rewarding experience

At the same time, the important role of the internal audiences within the respective banks in the successful implementation of this strategy was emphasized, and the banks themselves were tasked with communicating internally to ensure that their own people were supportive of the initiative.

The campaign adopted a four step approach:
• Awareness of the Mzansi account was needed. Messages needed to be conveyed in the relevant language from a trusted source that could be identified with.
• Understanding on the part of the public and the media of what the Mzansi Account was and of the benefits of such an account.  A large scale educational drive was needed. 
• Acceptance of both the banking system and the new accounts. 
• Commitment, which meant that Fleishman’s task was not simply to create an environment of awareness, understanding or even acceptance but to support the business objectives of the Mzansi account, to ensure that people actually opened accounts.

Fleishman identified the relevant key opinion leaders and arranged one-on-one meetings between those leaders and the spokesperson for the Banking Association. After the meetings, the association invited those who appeared supportive of the initiative to publicly endorse the Mzansi accounts by attending the nationwide launch events and sharing their sentiments on Mzansi with the media.

The launch events themselves were held at easily accessible public venues and were supported by staff and officials from participating banks. The main launch in Johannesburg took place at the largest mini-bus “taxi-rank” in Soweto, just 30 minutes from central Johannesburg. The launch was billed as “a new dawn in banking” and was held at sunrise so as to reach the thousands of early morning commuters who passed through the areas at that time and paused to watching an industrial theatre presentation illustrating the features and benefits of the Mzansi account.

Despite the early hour, media attendance was impressive and generated more than two hours of live TV coverage on SABC2’s top rated Morning Live program.

In addition to this, media were invited to a separate media launch including an interactive presentation by officials of the Banking Association of South Africa and endorsements by trade union leaders, government officials and church leaders. The event gave journalists an opportunity to ask questions.

Fleishman-Hillard helped the Banking Association of South Africa to achieve over R 10 million ($1.5 million) worth of publicity for the Mzansi account for an investment of R 360,000 ($50,000), for a return on investment of 28.1.

More important, despite the initial skepticism, within 12 months of launch, 2 million South Africans had opened Mzansi accounts. Nine out of 10 of these customers had opened bank accounts for the first time.

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