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PR Tips for High-Impact Community Banking - Part I

Finance is one of the most delicate, crucial and emotional aspects of a person’s life. Sitting down with a banker to discuss finance can make a person feel vulnerable and unsure of the present or future. This is the exact moment when a community bank can provide the personal support and feeling of community that can instill confidence and comfort in a customer.

I saw it firsthand as a teller at the Bank of Smithtown, one of my first summer jobs. I learned the name of every customer who walked through our doors, not because I had to but because it was a natural component of what a community bank does. I felt more connected to my community working in that bank than I ever did in high school, as a babysitter or through volunteer work.

Fast forward a few years, and technology took center stage in the banking industry. JPMorgan recruited me as vice president of public relations to focus on tech innovation in both retail and investment banking, which became a key differentiator layered atop every product and service we offered. I had moved to a bank with global reach, but the essence of community banking—those personal relationships with local businesses, individuals and the community-at-large—has stayed with me throughout my career.

At the end of the day, all financial institutions want to be perceived as community banks. The question then becomes, “Do they have the authenticity and long-standing relationships to maintain that perception while delivering services in ways that engage their account holders where they live, work and play?”

When I was overseeing JPMorganChase’s public relations efforts in Asia, we demonstrated in every country in which we won business that we had established local philanthropic efforts; we made it clear how long we had been operating in a specific location and provided a track record of local activity; we relayed our expertise and showcased the investment our senior leadership teams were making in the community. It’s not enough to be the oldest-standing entity in your town. You have to earn that status in the hearts and minds of your account holders everyday.

Here are some meaningful ways you can accomplish that goal in today’s fast-paced, connected environment.

“Community banking” is a term that still has meaning

As a community bank, you’re probably engaged in a seemingly never-ending competition with larger financial institutions and, sometimes, with other community banks. You’re getting pulled in several different directions simultaneously, creating new digital banking strategies for millennials and digital natives while maintaining a personal and homey atmosphere at your branches for those who value in-person meetings with their bankers. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure those various priorities are managed properly to bridge generational gaps and preferences in meaningful ways.

Megabanks have more money to roll into town and sponsor events that make them appear local, but the true community banks need to be strategic in showcasing long-standing relationships, which can be done consistently in ways that matter to your current and potential account holders. Having said that, your efforts need to stand up against other local banks and community players. Developing a holistic strategy with public relations, marketing, social media and event components is essential to increasing engagement with your account holders, as is establishing methods to connect with future customers.

Benchmarking and the value of introspection

First, you must benchmark your reputation with your account holders. Learn what they like and dislike about banking with you. Identify the short- and long-term banking needs of your customers and work with experts to develop smart customer service capabilities that cater to different generations. Provide a texting or chat service for millennials to engage with your bank on their mobile devices or on the Internet while still offering in-person meetings for those who rely on face-to-face interactions.

People trust people

A true community bank employs members of the community, manages the accounts of members of the community, lends money to members of the community and participates in the discussions and activities that advance the community. So much emphasis here is on people. Customers want and need to know who they are banking with, what that bank’s reputation is, with whom they will speak when applying for a loan to buy a house or to finance a car purchase. So much of a community bank’s reputation is built by and on its employees. Every client-facing banker should have a LinkedIn profile and a professional headshot. Today’s small and large business owners like to know the accomplishments, credentials and personalities of their bankers. If you have that information readily accessible and transparently push that information to the customer, the connection only deepens.

Technology matters; so do staff members

The digitization of banking in the last several years has seemingly eliminated the need for customer-facing tellers. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it’s more important than ever to hire and retain those individuals who can have deeper discussions as financial customer service representatives. I myself was so sure the personnel at my own bank had nothing fresh to offer that I went a full year and a half without sitting down face-to-face with a banker. When I did, I learned a plethora of new material I could take back to my business and use in my own personal finances. While I might not be back for some time, it’s crucial to my own sense of security and comfort that—should I ever need him—I have a trusted adviser and banker at my local branch.

Stay tuned for a closer look at community bank branding and reputation management in the second part of this post.

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