Should Bank Management Speak Up More On Social Issues?

Should Your Bank Speak Out?

In this day and age, political issues are coming fast and furious. A new skill for bank management is the ability to deftly answer questions by the media on social issues. While commenting on tax reform or your community’s infrastructure needs may be a safe area, bank management is more frequently being asked about transgender, racial and immigration. Some bank CEOs would rather climb out a window to avoid talking to the press while others make it part of their brand. Consider Eastern Bank ($10B, MA) with their “Join Us For Good” campaign (below). What is the right answer? We are not sure, but some recent data from KRC Research in a study sponsored by public relations firm Weber Shandwick gives us some insight on what issues to talk about and what issues to avoid. 


Social Issue Leadership


Approximately 35% of Americans believe the corporate CEO should take a leadership position on social issues, and 42% think that CEOs have more responsibility than in the past. If your bank is looking to grab more Millennial customers, public opinion is even more important as the statistics are 47% and 56%, respectively. In general, the public is slightly more in favor of a bank CEO speaking out. However, that view varies by community and by social issue. If the social issue is related to the bank or the workplace, the public is more in favor of the bank CEO speaking out, and if the issue is unrelated, or not directly related to a bank’s business, 34% of study participants were opposed versus 24% that were in favor.


Safe Issues


If there is one safe issue, it revolves around skills in the workplace. Anything advocating more training, education or skills is an easy social issue as 70% of the public believe that is acceptable and only 11% think management should avoid the topic. Behind that, pay equality is an important and safe issue as 67% believe CEOs should be talking about it and only 15% believe it is not appropriate.


Healthcare coverage, paternity/maternity leave, and gender equality have more support, in almost every demographic, as those that think bank management should remain mum.


One thing to consider here is that in repeated surveys both consumers and businesses need to have a high level of trust in their bank before moving the business to them. One of the main drivers of that trust is the perceived treatment of employees. Have negative articles about sexual harassment or harsh working conditions, and you will lose customers. Conversely, create a positive view of working conditions, and you will not only attract above average human capital, but you will also gain more customers in the process. Taking a thought leadership position on this safe, but important safe issues can create value. 


Management Speaking on Social Issues


Third-Rail Issues


In contrast, there are also a set of equally important issues that employees and the public do not believe bank management should express an opinion on – LGBT rights, refugees, immigration and gun control are examples of such issues.  Boomers, in particular, are more in favor of bank management remaining silent on these topics while Millennials are largely OK with their CEOs taking a thought leadership position on even the most sensitive topics.


Putting This into Action


Earlier this year, we were at a banking conference when three of 25 bank CEOs got called in the middle of a presentation within minutes after the news of the travel ban broke. You could tell who was prepared and who wasn’t. Given the level of political engagement, the charged state of the media and the speed at which these issues arise, it pays for your bank to have a proactive discussion with your board and management team to understand what you will, and will not comment on.