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Banking on good PR

by Alex Reichenbach

If you’ve been watching the news for the last few weeks, you’re probably familiar with the complaints Bank of America has been receiving. On September 29, Bank of America publicly announced its plan to charge customers a $5 monthly fee for those who use debit cards to make purchases.

The bank faced backlash from customers only a day after the announcement was made.

According to a Washington Post article, “the debit card change has sparked fury on the Web and cable channels. Consumers complained on message boards and in the social media, vowing to take their business elsewhere.”

It’s no surprise customers are going to be outraged with this additional cost in the current economy. The last thing people want is another fee to worry about. The result of a TIME Moneyland poll indicates about 75 percent of customers plan on switching banks if Bank of America follows through with the charge.

When a crisis like this occurs, it is the public relations practitioner’s job to find a way to turn the negative publicity into an opportunity for the business. One of Bank of America’s initial attempts at recovery was seen in an October 18 Bloomberg Businessweek article.

In the article, Brian T. Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, stated that the reason for the charge was to build consumer relationships.

“The company’s new $5 monthly fee for debit cards may attract business by encouraging customers to use more services so they can avoid the charge,” Moynihan said.

By enforcing the monthly charge, Bank of America hopes to build stronger relationships by providing various other services to clients. Moynihan could have easily dwelled on the fact that his so-called “loyal” customers were turning on him, but because of successful public relations tactics, that was not the case. Instead, he publicized the new opportunities that will result from this monthly fee, in hopes that it will change the negative feelings of the bank’s customers.

Bank of America is not the first bank to enforce this monthly fee.

According to a USA Today article, “SunTrust began charging a $5 debit card fee on its basic checking accounts this summer. Regions Financial, based in Birmingham, Ala., plans to start charging a $4 fee next month. Chase and Wells Fargo are also testing $3 monthly debit card fees in select markets.”

So why is it such a big deal if Bank of America decides to join in on this current trend? This announcement sparked much more commotion because, according to the USA Today article, Bank of America is the largest U.S. bank as measured by deposits.

The customers of Bank of America also tend to rely more on their debit cards rather than their credit cards, compared to other banks.

According to a TechNewsWorld article published on October 25, this reliance will drastically change if the monthly charge is put into effect in early 2012: “Thirty percent of U.S. consumers would leave their bank over debit card fees and another 43 percent would move to paying with cash or credit.”

It has been about a month since the initial announcement and public relations practitioners continue to deal with backlash from Bank of America customers.

Moynihan’s explanation in the Washington Post article was a successful first step in the recovery process. But how are public relations practitioners going to turn this crisis around once the charge is put into effect in a few months?


  1. Post comment

    As a Bank of America customer, I do not believe that the true intentions of this new $5 charge were clearly stated. The PR practitioner had to respond with some sort of response yet it did not seem to justify anything. Why would they state they are adding a $5 fee just to get customers to use other services? If the customers wanted to use the other services, I am sure they would look into them on their own time. So essentially, why fix it if it is not broken? Bank of America never stated that there was a problem and this new fee was the solution. I believe that Bank of America’s PR team did not use a permissible excuse in this crisis.

  2. Post comment

    My husband and I left Regions this month because of just this. He wrote a blog post on it that gives the details.
    Basically Regions said it would start charging for debit card use on October 1, 2011 and I used my debit card on September 28 and Regions didn’t process it until October 3!

    When debit cards first came out, the banks encouraged us to use them, rather than using checks, because it saved time and money (translate: saved the bank processing costs.) Big banks are going to be hard-pressed to find a way to put a good PR angle on this. It is not about helping us see other services. The customer was never in mind when they thought of this, no matter how hard they try to persuade us otherwise. Next, the airlines will try to tell us that by charging $25 per bag, they have the customer in mind. The only good public relations opportunity is for those financial companies who listen to the customer and react with customer service. Winner in this situation: the local credit unions.


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