The digitization of the economy, but even more so the transformation of financial services that transferred the bulk of transactions from tellers to ATMs within the span of only a few years, as well as the move from computer to mobile services, has completely overhauled the relationship between clients and banks. Most, if not all financial services to individuals are available online and it is now easier than ever to compare offers. Although differences remain, the sheer number of nuances may easily confuse consumers if all rates are alike. Competitive rates with a storefront are no longer enough to attract and retain clientele. What matters now is the experience and relational aspect.
Within this context, financial service providers who are able to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with their clients will have a lasting competitive advantage. This implies guiding clients through changes and establishing a relationship of trust. In order to create such a relationship, public relations provides several tools such as working with influencers and participatory approaches in order to bolster the marketing communications strategies of financial service providers, but especially to facilitate mutual understanding.
Unlike publicity, which offers full control over the content, the field of public relations cannot fully determine what journalists and the media will be focusing on. However, public relations provides a significant advantage in that it engages third parties and gets other stakeholders to join the conversation. As a matter of fact, regardless of the media used, public relations must be a two-way street and its fundamental reach goes beyond broadcasting.
Building authentic relationships
The Canadian Public Relations Society defines our practice as the "management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest." This means that a company aiming to harness the full potential of public relations must create two-way relationships.
Given their important role in the lives of Canadians, financial service providers are the source of many relevant stories and useful information. Public relations may act as a catalyst to bring stories under the spotlight, but may also make it possible to develop and tell stories in a way that enables all stakeholders to play a role. The numerous debates on business decisions made by banks, for example about the location of underused ATMs, show just how important banks are to the lives of people and communities. After all, they play a key role in the town centres we all know.
Given the essential role they play in the lives of people, banks must commit to the culture of public relations. This means initiating dialogue with key players of local and regional communities, explaining changes to stakeholders, and most importantly, keeping an open mind to the limitations and solutions emerging from this conversation. Whether through evening information sessions, collaborative workshops, individual meetings, or dedicated interactive channels on social media, changes can be explained… and improved upon. An authentic culture of public relations does not seek to make people accept change, but rather to make change acceptable by introducing informed decision-making in the best interest of each party.
Therefore, investing in public relations will pay off in the long term. As it makes it possible to distinguish between companies who listen to their clientele and those who do not, it facilitates the quest of consumers seeking out this meaningful difference. The need to stand out is even more important in Canada, given how much more stable our banking institutions are compared to those south of the border. Public relations may serve to amplify these nuances and turn them into a distinctive feature of banks who are attentive to and understanding of the needs of stakeholders.
Whether they are guiding individuals, entrepreneurs, or investors, banks must at all times safeguard the trust of people they do business with. Even more than in other sectors, when trust in a financial institution is jeopardized, dire consequences may ensue not only for stockholders, but also for clients and the entire country’s economy.
Moreover, a public relations culture does not simply react to the proper audiences in a timely manner, but also prevents potential misunderstandings that could damage the trust of stakeholders. Hearing and understanding the desires and attitudes of stakeholders is also integral to public relations.
Therefore, public relations are a tool to facilitate the efforts of a company undergoing changes, and to spread the word about its initiatives and the people contributing to these changes. As such, public relations may act as a powerful pivot for the banking sector, particularly in our time of technological uncertainty, and are thus necessary now more than ever.
——— Julien Baudry is a former Director and Sector Lead, Professional, Technical and Scientific Services at NATIONAL Public Relations