Before banks close a branch office or make dramatic cuts in the workforce, they should make sure they’re prepared for the social media fallout.

Banking is a controlled, regulated environment. Bankers don’t like risk. They scrutinize, analyze, quantify and squeeze out as much uncertainty as possible.

But banks have little control over what their online critics broadcast to huge swaths of the population, whether the message is civil and accurate or scurrilous and exaggerated. Banks must reconcile themselves to a world in which people on Facebook have the freedom to say virtually anything they want. Living in this world is inherently risky.

Unlike the old days when bankers could often get away with “no comment,” failure to respond to criticism in today’s environment means giving your detractors the last word and allowing them to define your mission, motives and maybe even your personality. And since content lives forever on the Internet, rumors can be taken as fact and repeated endlessly.

Every bank needs a process in place to reduce the risk of reputational damage. Regulators and auditors have issued plenty of directives and guidelines for setting up and monitoring social media programs, but the most important component of a successful program is the social media mindset of bank executives.

Chief executives must accept that social media discourse can be influenced but not controlled. They must also understand that engaging in social media allows banks to steer the conversation. And they should remember that there’s no room for thin skin in effective social media management.

Maintaining this mindset is particularly important when an institution decides to close a branch. Depending on the size of the branch, its proximity to other branches and its role in the community, such closings can set off a considerable backlash. Westamerica Bancorp. in San Rafael, Calif., for example, recently found itself embroiled in controversy when its decision to close a branch triggered a petition on the advocacy website MoveOn.org.

Community members may respond to news of branch closures with concerns about laid-off employees, stranded customers and unfunded civic programs for local retailers. Much of the local response will be channeled through social media.

Marketing managers can reduce potential blowback by preparing a social media checklist in advance of branch closings. Here’s a few items to include:
1.Develop message points to explain the reasons for the branch closing and the bank’s actions to mitigate the impact on employees and community. Circulate to all personnel and instruct them to use it and stay on message.
2.Be honest, sincere and avoid PR spin. People may not agree with your decision, but they will appreciate your candor.
3.Issue a letter to all accountholders prior to the official announcement. Explain the process and provide options for continued service.
4.Meet with civic and community leaders prior to the announcement. Reach out to newspapers, bloggers and micro-news sites as appropriate. Follow the message points, outline the transition plan and emphasize programs to reduce economic disruption.
5.Write content for the website and Facebook. Humanize the announcement by using faces and attributions; consider producing a short explanatory video.
6.Prepare an updated list of the most commonly asked questions for distribution to employees and placement on the website.
7.Contact Yelp to remove the closed branch location and prevent negative commentary.
8.Consider eliminating or hiding posts on your own Facebook page.
9.Use Arkovi or another service to monitor all social media posts mentioning your name.
10.Respond to inaccuracies quickly, directly and truthfully.
11.Avoid getting pulled into protracted social media conversations.

If bank personnel discover that a community group is organizing a campaign to protest the closing, cut off the momentum by inviting the group’s leaders to an informational session or by organizing meetings in the neighborhood. If momentum builds, consult with a public relations professional who has crisis management experience.

It’s difficult to anticipate the severity of a community backlash. But a well-thought-out social media plan will temper the negative repercussions and reduce any effect on your ongoing business.

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