By Christian Mullins
Coming soon to a Friday night near you is an ABC News ‘gotcha’ piece on the perceived excesses of the credit union industry. Presumably posing as vacationers on the island of St. Kitts, the ABC crew observed credit union executives engaging in Caribbean-type activities. First disclosed by Jeffry Pilcher, the segment is expected to air on 20/20 as early as tonight. By all appearances, it’s a smear campaign designed to infuriate America’s credit union members while giving banks a little company in the ranks of the vilified. Since credit unions know what’s coming, the question is how they react to it, if at all. The four reactions below do not necessarily represent what’s best for your credit union, rather they represent general lines of thought that should be modified to best suit your credit union’s circumstances.
1. We weren’t there. If your credit union did not attend the conference, say so. After the 20/20 piece airs, write a short paragraph on your homepage stating that your credit union did not have a representative at the conference in question. Additionally, if your opinion regarding TARP will allow it, include a sentence stating that your credit union has not and has no intentions of seeking TARP assistance. Furthermore, state that your CU does not endorse any credit unions, trade associations, or regulatory bodies seeking to procure access to TARP for themselves or on your behalf. For in-branch members, a small leaflet should be made available to any members that mention the report. Be sure that you don’t throw any other credit unions under the bus; simply say that you haven’t been a part of anything 20/20 reported.
2. Ignorance is Bliss. Sometimes, a ‘proactive’ campaign quickly becomes an unnecessary campaign. If there isn’t any outcry, there’s no need to stir the pot. This may amount to wishful thinking, but if 20/20 overreaches in their report or the timing coincides with more important events, such as the lowest Dow Jones Industrial Average in six years, it may fizzle before it begins. Credit Unions with weekend hours can gauge the interest (or outrage) of their membership on Saturday, with staff instructed to tell members that either a CU representative will contact them or they should check the CU homepage Monday. The initial reaction by members may dictate how, or if, your credit union responds.
3. Take an offensive approach. I don’t recommend this tactic, because it will likely backfire and amplify any ill will towards the CU industry, however, in fairness to being thorough, any interested credit union could simply write: ABC has long sought to boost their declining news ratings by trafficking in human misery, preferring to enrage its viewers by cherry picking specific instances that will show their target, in this case credit unions, negatively. We understand that if ABC News had investigated the credit union industry as a whole rather than a specific conference, they would have been obligated to report a positive story that doesn’t coincide with their show’s format. While we wish the report hadn’t aired, we do not begrudge ABC for their actions as they have long since abandoned reliable and responsible reporting on a consistent basis. This statement could be written for any news outlet, from Fox to MSNBC and all points in between, as long as the same cherry picking technique is used. Again, this suggestion is purely academic and I don’t recommend it at all.
4. Contrition. If your credit union did attend the conference in St. Kitts, and has publicly stated that credit unions should seek access to TARP, you are in a difficult spot, because fair or not, this report was filed with you in mind. Explain that while your budget allowed for the expense and that the conference, not the location, was of primary importance to your credit union, you realize that some people, including some in your membership, may be understandably upset. Assure anyone who asks that these decisions will be made more responsibly in the future for the benefit of both the credit union and its members.
While everyone that has ever hosted a conference understands that location is the key to attendance, most American’s have rarely, if ever, traveled for business purposes. It’s difficult to understand why a winter conference in Youngstown, OH (sorry Youngstown) is any different than a conference in Las Vegas or Orlando, or why a conference 2,000 miles away should be attended at all. After the 20/20 report airs, some people will lose their faith in credit unions. That’s just the reality of the situation, though I have a feeling (again, this may be wishful thinking) that this report will rile those in the credit union industry far more than the credit union membership.