When Wall Street Meets Main Street: Communicating in Tough Times

Tom Kelly speaks to a few of the chapter's newest members: Chris Orris, Stephanie Gandsey and Christina Tyler.

 

All Eyes on Chase

The recent recession turned millions of distraught heads toward the big boys of American finance, and JPMorgan Chase was up there with the biggest. Suffering from a convoluted financial mess that few understood, the bank’s media department faced many challenges as customers blamed losing their jobs or their homes on Chase and other banks. Last Tuesday, PRSA Suburban Chicago had the opportunity to hear Tom Kelly, senior vice president and regional director of media relations for JPMorgan Chase’s retail banking operations, explain how the retail banking operations managed the fallout of the investment banking crisis centered in New York City.

In communicating these efforts, Kelly emphasized the value of speaking in terms that regular people understand. While terms such as “pre-qualified modification terms” won’t resonate well with the average American, most Chase customers can appreciate hearing that Chase was creating regional centers with mortgage counselors, or preventing 650,000 foreclosures. In being so selective about his language, Kelly showed how attention to detail could make the difference between making consumers even more confused and frustrated, and getting the feeling that someone was finally cutting them a break.

 

What it Takes

Perhaps the first lesson of the night was learned to those of us who had the opportunity to chat with Kelly well before the meeting began. The questions he asked and the comments he made about things hardly even related to PR gave insight to the kind of thinking that goes into handling media relations for such a recognized brand as JPMorgan Chase. When a member mentioned their neighborhood, Kelly asked “Does it have street lights? How far do the sidewalks go?” When asked about his time at Northwestern University, he brought up how a recent adjustment to the lobby seating was very practical. That strict attention to detail, as Kelly later demonstrated, is key to getting a positive message across to a weary and suspicious audience.

 

For the Rest of Us

Kelly’s overall message was simple: “Talk about what you are doing. Do more and talk about it.” He showed how Chase backed up their messages with facts and figures that mattered to local audiences, such as total numbers of mortgage modifications offered, increases in consumer credit accounts opened, the number of new small business loans created, and contrasted the increase in these areas with results from previous quarters.

He also advised using every channel possible to communicate with audiences. Chase has used their website with video (www.chase.com/myhome), overnight mail packages, phone calls, bus stop shelters, radio advertising, mobile billboards in affected neighborhoods, press releases/reporter contacts, and meetings with community groups and elected officials to get information out to mortgage holders who need assistance with their mortgages. Kelly cautioned that when using statistics, make sure they are numbers that resonate with consumers – something that applies directly to them. Instead of talking total dollar amounts of credit extended, Chase used the number of small business credit accounts that were opened, or the number of new credit card accounts for individuals that were opened – figures that directly affect people.

Each tactic used by Chase to manage communication at the local level was illustrated with samples of media and direct-to-consumer messages. He also shed light on how to incorporate current examples of local philanthropy and special programs for military families into the mix without seeming self-serving.

The program closed with a different kind of crisis – examples of how Chase responded to customers affected by Hurricane Irene. Chase implemented crisis communications to customers, informing them about special programs such as waiving ATM fees for customers in the storm-damaged areas. Kelly demonstrated how Chase’s retail banking operations have continued to keep customers informed throughout multiple crises not of their own making.

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