PR’s Top Pros Talk… The Role of Journalism in the Banking Industry
Peter Cook, Chief Communications Officer at the American Bankers Association, shares how his team serves as the voice of the banking industry in Washington and the challenge of representing banks of all sizes. He explains his range of responsibilities at ABA, how he applies his journalism background to his job, and the importance of data in reaching a skeptical public.
DOUG: Peter, can we start by having you explain your role at the American Bankers Association?
PETER: Yeah, happy to do that. And thanks for having me, Doug, I appreciate it. My role as Chief Communications Officer at the American Bankers Association is really to speak on behalf of our members and the organization. We are the largest trade association representing the banking industry here in Washington. We represent everything from the smallest banks in the country to the largest banks, and lead a fabulous team here at ABA that handles not only our media engagement, our external policy statements on behalf of the industry, but I also have a member communications team that is responsible for sending a daily email newsletter to our members, updating them on what we’re doing on their behalf, and 16 other email newsletters on everything from compliance to cybersecurity to mortgage lending, very specific things geared towards individual bank employees. And I lead a marketing team. I have a great marketing team that markets not only all of our advocacy, our policy positions, and shares that with the external audiences, but also markets are conferences, schools, education and training, where the one of the biggest trainers of bank employees around the country as well. And that’s a big business for us. And lastly, I’m honored to lead our with a foundation, the foundation, and that is specifically geared towards helping banks of all sizes engage in their communities. So, we provide programs, tools, resources, particularly in the financial education space, to allow banks to be able to visit high schools, elementary schools, have bankers be in the classroom sharing financial education advice. We also have a program for seniors as well, Safe banking for seniors, which allows again, banks to be able to visit community groups, senior citizen centers, and help protect seniors from elder financial abuse specifically.
DOUG: Obviously, you’ve got an incredibly broad portfolio with that role. What are some of the strategies you use because you have to address different audiences that you’d mentioned that today you’re meeting with some of your members, just the jacket and tie look, but there’s many different audiences that you’re reaching out to with many different programs. What are some strategies you use to navigate that?
PETER: You know, there are big differences between the largest banks in this country and the smallest banks. At the end of the day, though, there’s also tremendous commonality. And being a banker and running a bank in this country, at the end of the day, you are a financial intermediary. You’re making people and businesses expand their financial opportunities, grow their businesses. And we like to stress those common bonds and bankers like to stress them as well. And even at times of crisis, I think those bonds become even more readily apparent. And so, it is not as hard as you might think in herding the cats, if you will, among our members. Certainly, there are some issues where large banks have a particular perspective or something might be particularly relevant to them, more so than a community bank and vice versa. But we try and highlight those areas where the industry stands together. And that’s where ABA is at its strongest when our members are united.
DOUG: That’s really a smart strategy, especially for so many of these groups that have different members with possibly different interests. If you can find the common ground, that’s going to be a much better foundation for moving forward. Previously you were a journalist, and how did that background prepare you for this role? And are there lessons, maybe from the combination of what you’re doing now and what you learned from being a journalist that would benefit others who might be in similar communications and management leading positions?
PETER: Well, I’m certainly not the first former journalist to find their way to communications, but not all former journalists actually covered the institution they end up at. And that is true for me. Back in the day, I worked at several news organizations, but I was at Bloomberg for close to 15 years, and I covered the financial crisis. I covered the banking industry up close as a reporter, and I covered the American Bankers Association used to challenge its leaders and ask them hard questions on a regular basis, including our current CEO, who was somewhere else at the time, and think that experience is incredibly invaluable because I know what the hard questions are that we will face and need to answer. And I think that perspective allows me to think ahead as to what’s coming and prepare us for that. And I think it’s incredible preparation for this job, you have to learn how to write. That’s helpful as well. And so, I think my journalism experience, I still like to think of myself as a reporter on many days, I am asking way too many questions in all of our meetings. And, you know, challenging and making sure that we are putting ourselves to the test before somebody else does.
DOUG: I think what you’re saying really means that moving to more transparency and recognize that there are legitimate questions that are going to be asked, and you’ve got to approach what you’re doing as an organization as well as prepare to discuss those. So you have good answers. Is that helped you have more influence among the members that experience?
PETER: I have brought a message out, and I did this in my previous role as well in government, when I worked at the Department of Defense, the notion of hiding under your desk and avoiding hard questions and not being able to confront the issues of the day that time has passed. You need to engage, and the more you can engage on your own terms and be proactive, the better. Certainly, each individual situation requires its own unique response but, I absolutely encourage our members to be proactive to think ahead of time as to how they might respond to a particular situation. And the same true for ABA speaking on behalf of the industry. We need to engage, we need to predict where those conversations will go and we need to get there first.
DOUG: How are you using research and data to help you get there first and plan your strategies?
PETER: Well, we’re very lucky here to have a great research team, our office of the Chief Economist. We have some really, really smart people in the organization and they have great research and data. We have, in fact, some data through our members at ABA that is proprietary and arguably better than just about anyone except maybe a few of the regulators. And we use that data absolutely every day. As you know, it’s been a challenging year for the banking industry in some respects. We had the failure of three banks in the spring, and one of the challenges we had immediately was make sure that we could demonstrate to the public that they should have confidence in the industry and every other bank in this country, and we were able to do that with data. Thankfully, regulators shared some of the same data showing that banks are incredibly well capitalized. They’re resilient. They’re strong. But data, if we didn’t have that data, that would have been a much harder thing to sell to very skeptical reporters and to an arguably skeptical public at that time. And so, data really matters. And good data really, really matters. So, we were thankful we were lucky enough to have that here at ABA.
DOUG: One of the things you’re so central to the organization, so central in the news of the day, I mean to your point, it was front page news for a while while those stories were going on. One of the things that’s changed, obviously, journalism is that affecting how you approach communications, trying to even make it easier for the journalists who cover your industry that might be applicable to others who maybe aren’t typically front page news.
PETER: We have a pretty strong beat. We have a core group of reporters and media outlets very focused on banking and financial services that I think. It’s a good thing that there’s a vibrant media following us and covering us, so I don’t think that’s as much of an issue for us. I will say that having been on the other side and having covered the financial crisis and covered this industry as a reporter for some time, you know, there are a lot of young reporters who are just learning the beat who may not have had the benefit of that experience. And so, we spend a decent amount of time, I spent personally time with reporters trying to do what I can to share some of the history here and make sure that they appreciate this moment in time. You know, we’re still dealing with some of the after effects of 2008 and having some perspective on that, having my own perspective as a reporter. I think that’s often helpful. And when reporters are willing to listen, that’s great. It is a different environment out there to be a journalist. It’s a challenging media environment, and I’m absolutely sensitive to that. I have a number of friends in the business. I encourage young people to become reporters. I speak at journalism schools still all the time. And it’s an honorable profession, and I’d love to see it remain as vibrant and successful as possible.
DOUG: Great. Well, you’ve clearly been vibrant and successful in communicating some interesting information. Thanks so much for being part of the discussion.
PETER: Honored to do so.