September 21, 2014
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September 16, 2009

PR in the Financial Crisis: Campaign for FDIC Grabs 170 Million Impressions to Help Boost Confidence

By Frank Zeccola

It's now been a year since the banking and financial crisis exploded in the U.S.

In the lead-up and aftermath, more than a few consumers considered—or actually began—taking their money out of banks and sticking it under their mattresses or in shoe boxes. With high-profile banks getting run into the ground by the dozens, this seemed the safest option to some for saving money, even though the FDIC insures up to $250,000 per depositor.

And the media, always hungry for a good scare story tied to the biggest crisis headlines, jumped on it.

But fear and confusion among the banking public only served to threaten the entire financial system. To reassure consumers that insured deposits were in fact safe—and to discourage unnecessary and unsafe withdrawals—the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) engaged PR powerhouse Porter Novelli to create an aggressive public education campaign.

The challenge: Restore consumer confidence in the banking system after the Great Collapse. The problem was that many Americans did not understand the details of FDIC deposit insurance, such as how much of their money is insured, what the coverage limits are and how deposit insurance is structured. And while most people are not likely to have deposits above the insured limits, they still feel uncertain about the economy—which leads to irrational action like stuffing money in mattresses.

"People no longer trusted that their money was safe," says Porter Novelli's vice president, Betsy Stephenson. "And it got a lot of media coverage."

To make things worse, new-media technology escalated consumer anxiety. "You had people standing in line at banks, taking videos and spreading the word. The bad news took on a whole new dynamic. A lot of the news was first hand accounts that weren't entirely accurate. Facts got blurry. There was a lot of emotion. Customers were really scared."

The response was clear: "The FDIC wanted people to understand more about deposit insurance to regain trust in the FDIC and in banks."

The strategy: Publicize the FDIC's online tool for ensuring that money is safe—through a partnership with financial giant Suze Orman. The FDIC and Porter Novelli decided a proactive campaign tied to some of the FDIC's online consumer tools would be the best course of action. In particular, the FDIC's Electronic Deposit Insurance Estimator (EDIE) is an online tool that provides customized bank account information, including clarification of whether accounts are fully insured. EDIE had been available to the public for years, but usage levels were modest at best.

If Porter-Novelli could renew interest in the EDIE tool, it would be a good start towards boosting confidence. "The tool allows people to enter basic information about their accounts to make sure it's insured," Stephenson says. "It was the core component of this campaign."

The other core component was a strategic partnership with popular financial expert Suze Orman. Orman had reached out to the FDIC's Chairman in the past—and it was now time to bring her in on a partnership to promote the EDIE product.

"She's an expert in her field—no questions asked," Stephenson says. "She knows her stuff. In addition, her target audience was our target audience."

From there, the campaign involved news appearances by Orman as well as public service announcements and news stories tied to the financial crisis and the FDIC's online tools for ensuring that bank deposits are safe. "We wanted to give people something constructive to do [about their fears]," Stephenson says. "In the lead-up to the big implosion of the economy, no one knew what they could do about their money. But the FDIC's online tool gave them something they could understand, feel better about and make sure they didn't put their money at risk. Our strategy was to drive people to the website to use the online tool and make sure their money was safe."

The results: Nearly 170 million media impressions skyrocket interest in the FDIC's tools and ensure consumers that their money is safe. In just under six weeks, the program was underway. "We built this program from scratch," Stephenson says. "We put together everything—the creative, the PSAs, the website, enhancements to the web tool—in six weeks. It was challenging but invigorating. We were part of a bigger force of what was happening in the country."

The resulting media coverage was spectacular. With Orman's star power behind the campaign, earned placements reached an audience of almost 167 million, with top hits on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (twice), the "Today" show (twice), "Good Morning America" and CNN's "Larry King Live" (twice), and in the New York Times, USA Today, AARP Bulletin, O Magazine and the New York Times best seller Suze Orman's 2009 Action Plan.

And the day after the campaign launched, the FDIC recorded nearly 3.4 million hits on myfdicinsurance.gov and attracted 43,802 user sessions on EDIE—a 1,637 percent increase in user sessions compared to pre-launch levels.

"The results were fabulous," Stephenson says. "From the beginning, we were clear on what we had to accomplish. Not only did we deliver against that, but we had off-the-charts results. All of the multiple pieces—the PSA, media coverage, web tools—worked together to provide a common level of reassurance on the safety of our money. It made a difference and people responded."

In addition: "The campaign still gets picked up all the time on the web and in print stories when reporters or experts give finance advice and tips. That tells us that it was the right info at the right time and it's in front of all people. It's now one of the things you need to do to get your financials in order."

Secrets for success: Read on as Stephenson offers more tips and explains why this campaign won Gold in Best Education/Public Service Campaign and Silver in Best Investment, Banking & Financial Services Campaign at the 2009 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations and Publicity:

1. Consider partnering with outside spokespeople who have huge reach among your target audience. "When engaging outside spokespeople, make sure their audience is your target audience," she says. "It's one thing to have a spokesperson who's an expert but doesn't have recognition or impact. But because Suze Orman is essentially her own media channel, we had built-in distribution. She has perfected the art and science of speaking directly to her viewers and followers. When you marry that with credibility of the FDIC as a neutral authority and incredible source—it was a powerful combination. Suze speaks and people listen. She told our audience, 'This is what you need to do, and it's backed by the FDIC.' It was a very credible source."

2. Make it easy on consumers: Keep messages and calls to action simple when tackling complex topics—financial or otherwise. "The more complex your topic, the more straightforward your call to action," she says. "It's important it is to have a simple message and direct call to action. That has to go from top to bottom—from every single asset to support the program. If you have a PSA that directs people to a website covered with data and charts, you've lost them. But if the website says, 'Here's what you need to do: One, two, three. Allow people to work through the level of detail they need for their situation."

3. Refocus on news value—not the sound of your CEO's voice. "Anticipate how your story or message will fit into the bigger news environment," she says. "It's amazing how many of us want to go out and hear the sound of our own voices. Make it relevant—that's the key to legitimacy. Look ahead, not just at your story, but where it fits in."

WINNER'S PROFILE: Porter Novelli was founded in 1972 and is a part of Omnicom Group Inc. With 100 offices in 60 countries, Porter Novelli helps clients achieve Intelligent Influence—changing attitudes and behaviors by having the right conversations with the right people at the right time.

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