Embracing social media in the Chase Bank crisis

There I sat staring listlessly at my screen. I was as usual editing away to a deadline. My mind had long ceased to be on my work. On my left was my shadow gadget – my phone – purring away as it sucked power from my computer. The messages were coming in fast and furious.

That day the topic was mostly one across all the platforms I was scanning: Chase Bank. The Relationship Bank.

Was it true that The Relationship Bank was facing imminent collapse? I was at a crossroads, several in fact. One: I have good friends who work (worked?) at Chase Bank. If this were true, they would be jobless. But then again they would have told me, I thought. Then there was that nagging issue – professional ethics. Would any of them be in order telling a client, the bank is in trouble?

Crossroad number two: I had several chama accounts there. One of them was particularly poignant in my mind. We had discussed this project account back and forth in the boardroom but in the haste we never got to picking the papers and doing the necessary. We called the bank and asked for the branch nearest where we were meeting. In exactly 30minutes we had someone come in to our boardroom with the papers, picked our minutes that indicated we wanted to open an account with them and the rest is history…well until that dreadful day, April 4, 2016.

Most annoying though was this string of questions from my friends and relatives who expected me to have an answer. After all Public Relations people are mini-encyclopaedias on every topic under the sun, and especially current affairs. It was futile to say that not only was I a neophyte in matters banking but I have also never spent a minute of my life working for a bank, any bank; I was supposed to confirm or refute the rumours.

I scanned the news and social media for an authority figures’ word. The Relationship Bank was behaving like all was well. I turned to the regulator, Central Bank. The website and Twitter pages all had information on exchange rates; Treasury Bill auctions and zilch on what was really itching me and others in my shoes.

Then there was a ray of hope; the Central Bank Governor called for a presser and I said “there, we have our answers”. Did we? The next morning we woke up to news that the Relationship Bank had failed to relate and had subsequently been placed under receivership! As the moments turned into minutes, the minutes to hours, social media was accused of being the culprit in sinking the relationship bank.

Visit the Central Bank of Kenya Facebook page; monitor the Twitter handle and website. It is business as usual on Central Bank’s online presence, while it is clear the prevailing environment has been one of uncertainty, fear and trepidation. How does one buy the Treasury Bills when their life’s savings are locked up in a bank that has failed in its primary duty? More dire, if the destroyers were on social media, what effort was the CBK making to reach out to them and placate them? Relevance was missing from the conversation that the Central Bank was carrying on in social media.

Crisis communication and social media
Central Bank should have been better prepared for the crisis in their hands. One principle of crisis communications is always to scan your industry and create possible adverse scenarios. What is the worst that could happen and what would we do if it happened? Document that and develop clear talking points for each scenario. In our fast world aided by social media, anything becomes a matter of joy to celebrate, or a crisis to mourn, in the twinkling of an eye. This was going to be no exception.

Social media is termed ‘social’ for a reason. It is a dialogue, engagement, expecting instant answers. In contrast to traditional media, every one with a gadget in their hands is a source and a recipient of news. It goes without saying that the news – unlike in the ‘normal’ media – is unregulated. I am aware of the rigorous process a story goes through before it is published by the traditional media. Many stories die before they see the light of day because they either are unverified, or the source is unreliable. With social media, the ‘send’ or ‘share’ button is so inviting one often doesn’t think twice.

In the deep of the Chase Bank crisis, one person wrote on the Central Bank Facebook page: ‘I just need my money to survive on my own. No trust to Central Bank, where were their supervisors, what are they doing to put us into this mess. Did they come to know all these illegal transactions in the middle of the night as they were switching off Chase bank system? We are indeed suffering.’ (slightly edited for grammar)

But there are also other questions on the page including how to invest in bonds and bills yet there is no response from the regulator whatsoever. This has led one client to ask: Why open a page and no one responds to clients asking questions?

It could well be that this crisis could have been managed by a holding statement issued on social media, or issued both at the press conference and the social media. Today’s corporates, including regulatory authorities, must have some level of social media engagement round the clock. Fact. No discussion there.

Reputation management
In Public Relations, our core business is to manage the relationships and reputation of our organisations. We pride ourselves as being “the management function that identifies, establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its publics on whom its success or failure depends’. We monitor the organisations environment, collect information about environmental deviations and use this to alert the organization to problems that need to be corrected. We are in the business of engaging with stakeholders.

People, whether internal or external stakeholders, base their judgement of an organisation on the experience they have had in the past, what they have heard others say about it, and the probability of its future behaviour. Reputation is that enduring and powerful feeling evoked when a name is mentioned. Reputation is an intangible asset that affects the tangible elements of an organisation’s bottom line – and is therefore highly desirable. In short, reputation describes the character of a person or organisation and informs people’s daily decisions.

The crisis in the banking industry is not yet over. We have many answered questions. Central Bank is also not just about solving crises. However, their methods of engagement must, and should now include an active social media strategy because for the next few years, social media will be with us until a new method of communicating is invented. And this is especially true if indeed social media brought up the crisis as accused.Social media is borderless and is the answer to society’s ever-present need to comment and question.

If we are going digital, we need our Central Bank setting the pace. Clearly, the crisis has provided CBK the opportunity to re-think her social media strategy. Will she rise to the occasion? Only time will tell.

Post script: As I concluded this opinion, I came across a detailed analysis of what the CBK was tweeting (or not) in the heat of the Chase Bank crisis. Nothing relevant to the crisis. The CBK Governor then had the press conference where he announced the reopening of the Bank under Kenya Commercial Bank oversight. Within the hour, the Governors Twitter handle was trending but the official CBK handle had only the official press statement. Time to learn from the boss?

Jane Gitau is the Chair of the Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK) Email: jwgitau@gmail.com

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