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The medium is not the message

Conventional media outlets have undergone a dramatic decline in staffing, with the result that news stories - including those about credit unions - aren't getting the coverage they deserve. Three communications experts opine on how credit unions can get their messaging out in an evolving and highly fragmented media landscape.

Turmoil, shutdowns, job cuts, falling revenue, pleas for financial aid. These are common headline themes when the news business writes about itself these days.

With newspapers and TV news rooms slashing staff as their audiences move online, you might think that this is a tough time to get attention for your credit union and your good news stories. But some people in the credit union system are optimistic about their chances and say others can learn from their examples.

The consensus is: while it takes more work and understanding to get the job done, credit unions can have more success than ever getting publicity for their activities. However, many will have to change the way they approach the media. The days of widely distributing a news release and waiting for coverage are long gone.

For years credit unions lamented their low visibility and the high profile of the big banks, often calling themselves the best kept secret in the country. So, over the past decade, many have stepped up efforts to change that by seeking media coverage in a focused way. There have been many successful efforts leading to positive stories.

Then, conventional media outlets began slashing staff, leaving few behind to report the news in print, radio or television. The numbers are daunting. Almost 18,000 jobs have been lost in the past decade, dozens of papers have closed and more are hanging by a slender thread. From 2008 to 2016, 169 local media outlets closed and another 54 reduced services, a trend that accelerated in 2017, most notably with the swap of assets by two of Canada’s largest media corporations: Torstar and Postmedia, says the Public Policy Forum, which has studied the news industry. In one fell swoop, the companies swapped 41 titles, largely in areas where they both operated. Almost immediately, 36 were shuttered to create regional dominance by one chain or the other. In a report released this past September, the Forum said the remaining papers were producing fewer stories and writing less about local events, politics and, quite likely, credit unions. In the 20 papers it surveyed local coverage was down 50 percent.

What does this mean for credit unions and their media relations?

“One of the things that we all know and recognize is that media have reduced resources, so there are fewer of them working in the industry,” says Rhonda Nowak, manager of external communications at Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (499,000 members, $22.3billionin assets). “Their time is constrained; it means not only are they covering fewer local stories but they have less time and resources to do that,” Nowak says.

“It’s a very different landscape in terms of getting media attention from where it was five or 10 years ago when you would just issue a press release and wait for things to come.” – Bryan Yu

Credit unions, adds Nowak, need to start by looking for opportunities to provide news stories that put your credit union in a positive light. “Job 1 as a media relations person at any credit union is understanding your local media and what’s news to them and then only deliver something that has news value,” Nowak says.

Vancity has been successful in recent years by commissioning studies and reports that are relevant to residents and incorporate the credit union’s progressive values. The reports are released to the media and the public with expert comments from Vancity staff. For example, a report this past August looked at the gig economy and why British Columbia residents were choosing short-term contracts over full-time jobs. The accompanying news release quoted Vancity’s manager of community business and investment. Other reports this year have looked at why women in BC are financially stressed as well as the economic factors driving the province’s car-sharing boom. “Because we are local we know our members and our particular market better than the big banks do so we can tap into report topics that people really care about here, always having the lens of their finances,” Nowak says. “Quite honestly, we’ve had better news coverage in this type of environment than we have in the past.”

Josh Juhlke, communications manager at First West Credit Union, (226,000 members, $10.1 billion in assets), says media reporters are open to credit unions “because we are an alternative, member-owned financial cooperative. I also think that locally a lot of the publications know what we’re doing in the community and know that our intentions are pure. I think that helps a lot too,” Juhlke says.

Juhlke agrees that being able to spot a good story within your credit union is where successful media relations starts. The next job is studying your media environment and knowing which reporters are most likely to be interested in your news. “You also need to understand the different audiences that media outlets have and why their approaches may differ,” he says. “The issue that some credit unions have is when media relations is a kind of a side of the desk project it can be challenging to make it successful, because they aren’t really giving it the time or the effort that it needs to succeed. If a small credit union has a one or two-person marketing and communications team and they don’t necessarily have any media background and they don’t have capacity, it can be really challenging to see any success.”

“In this new reality I think we all need to think about ourselves as our own media outlets as well.” – Rhonda Nowak

Sometimes the lack of immediate success leads credit unions to pull back on media relations, when what they need to do is refocus and refine their approach, says Juhlke, who joined First West about a year ago after six years at PenFinancial Credit Union (19,500 members, $632 million in assets) in Ontario. He says his background in radio news helps him understand what reporters are looking for and the pressure they are working under.

Nowak adds that it’s important to package stories in a way that makes it easy for reporters to do their jobs. When Vancity releases a report, it makes sure a spokesperson is available and has two or three people affected by the topic who are willing to talk on the subject. It has no control over what those people say but makes them available to make it easier for reporters to prepare a story.

At First West, Juhlke has “been successful by being more proactive, connecting with publications basically just to say, ‘Hey, we have experts here that can talk on a variety of topics, finance and outside finance, human resources, leadership or cybersecurity.’ ”

Juhlke has found this especially successful with radio but it requires making sure your experts can be available on short notice and feel comfortable speaking to media. Juhlke says he usually provides some quick media training and advice before any First West manager does an interview, just to make sure they know what to expect.

Bryan Yu, deputy chief economist at Central 1 Credit Union, is often interviewed by print, TV and radio reporters. Yu says he has seen dramatic changes over the decade he has been issuing economic reports and commenting on financial matters. “It’s a very different landscape in terms of getting media attention from where it was five or 10 years ago when you would just issue a press release and wait for things to come,” Yu says. “Now, you need to cut through a lot more noise. And there’s the fact the media doesn’t have as many resources as they used to, so you need to make a greater effort to actually contact them directly.”

“If a small credit union has a one or two-person marketing and communications team and they don’t necessarily have any media background and they don’t have capacity, it can be really challenging to see any success.” – Josh Juhlke

Like Nowak and Juhkle, Yu has had success by reaching out to specific reporters he knows usually follow the topics he is writing about, such as housing. Giving them a heads up that a report is coming can help get coverage. Also, Yu is active on Twitter and finds it helps him reach reporters and credit union executives. “The important thing about social media, if you’re willing to be on it and put yourself out there you need to be genuine in terms of what you’re saying. You’re not necessarily hawking a ware but you are engaging in respectful conversations.”

People throughout the credit union system also follow Yu to discuss the latest economic news. “In my own experience,” Yu says, “I have engaged with the CEOs from credit unions through Twitter. You have to recognize who your audience is and who is on it.”

Nowak says that Vancity aims to get coverage in traditional news outlets because that gives its stories more credibility. The credit union then uses social media to amplify and spread its news. First West
uses the same tactic. When it is mentioned in the media, the link is shared with the Social Squad and they’re encouraged to share it with their followers. “We use an internal social platform called Yammer and we created a group called the Social Squad — our key social ambassadors that we’ve identified,” Juhlke says.

Juhlke is skeptical about using podcasts or YouTube videos externally while Yu says there is a lot of potential to use these platforms to communicate within the credit union network to an audience that has a greater interest in exploring the topics in depth. Nowak concurs with Yu. While traditional media and online media remain important as third-party validation, credit unions need to look at their own social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and understand their audience and how to prepare content directly for them, she says. “In this new reality, I think we all need to think about ourselves as our own media outlets as well.” ◊