One-to-One with Geezeo: Sarah Snell Cooke, Principal at Cooke Consulting Solutions

February 14, 2018
Amy Hibbard

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in financial services and fintech about where the industry is headed, sometimes fascinating insights are revealed. One-to-One with Geezeo is an ongoing series that gives our friends, clients, and partners an opportunity to share their experiences and their knowledge to gain an idea of where this exciting industry is heading. In this installment, Amy Hibbard talked with Sarah Snell Cooke, Principal at Cooke Consulting Solutions about how the role of communications in financial services is changing and how data & technology are at the center of it all.

Geezeo: What are the greatest communications challenges financial institutions are facing today?

When players in the market range from trillion-dollar banks to credit unions of only hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not less, consumer awareness is key for community banks and credit unions. The trouble is communications and marketing, in general, are not treated at a strategic level. Very often the situation is, ‘We need more car loans. Have the pretty poster people whip something up.’ The outcome may be somewhat effective in the short term, but if community financial institutions took the time to discover their brand and effectively communicate it (supported with the right products and service) on an ongoing basis, everyone wouldn’t have to live in fire-drill mode.

So many executives believe they impose the brand on their companies, but it’s quite the opposite. If you’re seen as antiquated by consumers, that is your brand. If employees see executives as lackluster that will be reflected in the company’s brand. Perception is a reality, so discover your brand first. The underlying products and service (as directed by the consumers) must be solid to have a good story for marketers to do their jobs well. If you don’t like what you learn from your members, then change is imperative, but most people inherently are scared of the unknown and become petrified or unwilling to move forward.

Your brand generates the highest ROI awareness tool of all: word of mouth. And that can be a positive or negative thing. Financial institutions have more control over it than they think. Backing up a step further are internal communications problems. Executives may create the best strategy the business world has to offer, but if they can’t communicate it effectively and do not do so on a regular basis, it’s useless. Many don’t regularly communicate it, and most don’t communicate it in a manner that makes sense at all levels of the organization. The strategy isn’t just for stuffy MBAs to nod their heads up and down at; it’s for the mid-level managers and the consumer-facing staff to execute upon. If it isn’t communicated in a way that helps them understand why the strategy is important to the organization and to them specifically and their role in the strategy, it isn’t going to be successful. Better yet, get input from people on the ground before it’s fully formulated! Human beings want to feel like a part of something bigger than themselves, and if you don’t allow them to be a part of it, they won’t be. Period.

Geezeo: What impact has the "fake news" message had on how banks and credit unions’ ability to get their message out? How do they overcome that challenge?

Now that this catchphrase has become part of the vernacular, it’s been applied to the point it’s lost all meaning. People tend to shout—literally or virtually—fake news anytime they don’t like something that’s reported or how it’s reported. Many news organizations aren’t helping themselves out either because of the pressures of trying to keep up with that one time the fake news outlets might be right, which leads to sloppy reporting and fact-checking and bad editorial decisions. Still, further, plenty of people take political pundits and self-proclaimed gurus as news rather than commentators; it’s the cable news business model. Some websites have made a business out of intentionally posting actual fake news just because they know people will share it without considering the article’s sources or double checking the facts, which drives page views and, therefore, ad clicks and revenue.

To get your message out to news outlets, financial institutions really need to stick to the basics of PR.

1. Don’t jump at just any opportunity to participate in an article. Make sure the news outlet meets your criteria for a reliable source, which will build your credibility.

2. Build relationships with the right reporters and editors at your targeted outlets. Don’t just shoot them an email now and again (or all the time) and think that’s going to build trust. Take them out for coffee with one of your staff experts and discuss their needs. Something may come of it if you listen carefully to the reporter’s needs, but it also might not and that’s ok.

3. Make your pitches about them and the information their readers need. You may be offering this great new service, but why should they care? For example, one pocket of the community is primarily single, low-income mothers. They often work late shifts and need reliable transportation to feel safe working those hours; your service makes it easier for them to get a car that keeps them employed and the family safe.

4. Give them news tips. Reporters love tips! They honestly don’t care about your branch groundbreaking. Offer up something to really sink their teeth into. In your market research or in your financial institution’s data, you may have noticed an increase in delinquencies and foreclosures in a particular area. Obviously, don’t give them your data, but it’s definitely an interesting observation, and you can talk about what your financial institution is doing to combat the problem.

5. Tap your experts (after some solid media training)! Reporters are always looking to broaden their sources and for particular expertise. Yes, the person responsible for PR should open the door, but let the experts do the talking.

6. Provide data to substantiate when possible.

7. Offering up a customer/member willing to speak with them about whatever you’re pitching, that’s the cherry on top.

Geezeo: What can be done by FIs to help them maintain the public's trust?

Just run a financially strong, ethically sound business. Consumers know it costs money to provide services. Follow principled business practices, charge reasonable fees and interest rates, offer decent yields and be empathetic when customers/members need a leg up. If you can’t maintain a modicum of decency, there’s no amount of lipstick to dress up that pig.

When a misstep occurs, follow the Domino’s messaging model: We screwed up, we’re listening, and here’s how we’re fixing it. And then follow through!

One of the great problems in business today is the demand for immediate gratification, whether it’s a quick return to investors or executive compensation packages that are not structured in the best interest of the institution and its customers/members. Build the hundred-year business.


Geezeo: What advice would you give to the executive that is sitting on the fence with regards to digital transformation?

People can get wrapped up in the slick technology and the salesperson’s spiel, but at the end of the day, no matter what, it’s just one more way to communicate with other humans. The words that sell employees on why digital transformation is necessary are critical. Some will be set in their ways and don’t want to learn new systems. Some will be worried whether they’re capable of learning new systems, and still others will wonder what this means for their job and their family’s financial security going forward. All of these issues are legitimate and need to be addressed with understanding, even as you move forward. Their buy-in—not all, but most—is vital to accomplishing what needs to be done. Invest in training on the new systems, because what you do communicates more about your investment in the organization and its people than any words you can say. And while it’s important that the end result is simple for customers/members to use, the back-end ease of use is just as important. Don’t make enemies of the lifeblood of your organization.

Geezeo: Since PR, communications, and social media require connectivity and technology tell us about your relationship with your phone? Is it attached at your hip or do you use it minimally as a communications tool?

Unfortunately, I do not set a good example when it comes to my relationship with my phone. I’ve always felt that being responsive to employees, clients, and my family is good leadership. Being in communications and starting my own firm (and somewhat neurotic), it probably gets more face time than anyone in my life, and that’s bad. I definitely have far less attachment to it after business hours, but PR really does require constant monitoring, whether it’s a media request from a reporter on deadline or a mean tweet.

Geezeo: How important is data in a financial institution’s ability to fully leverage content?

Data is two-thirds of the strategy trifecta behind effective communications. First and foremost, you have to know your audience in the real world. Talk with customers/members about their needs and concerns. Ask friends and acquaintances relevant questions about their points of view. Then, layering that information over survey and focus group data will give you a better picture of what people say they want and need. Finally, combine that with the data on how they’re actually interacting with your website, in their accounts and with your advertising and social media. The more you know about your audience, the better you can refine your messaging to communicate with them when and where they want.

Geezeo: What was the hardest part of making the move from publishing to entrepreneurship?

I enjoyed the mix of strategy and execution at CU Times and working with the team. Now it’s just me doing nearly everything!

Sarah Snell Cooke, Principal at Cooke Consulting Solutions, is a communications and business development expert with nearly 20 years in the credit union community. Prior to founding Cooke Consulting Solutions, she served in various capacities of growing responsibility at Credit Union Times, from Washington, DC reporter to editor-in-chief to publisher/editor-in-chief. During that time, she was named to the 2015 Folio Top Women in Media and ALM Media’s 2015 Manager of the Year. Cooke also serves as secretary of the board at $440M APL FCU. Prior to CU Times, she wrote about credit union regulation for Credit Union Regulatory Insider. She holds an MBA and a bachelor of arts in political science with a minor in journalism.

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