Allfirst begins airing PR ads

Focus put on employees as `essence' of bank to counter trading scandal

April 17, 2002|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

In an effort to rebuild its damaged image, Allfirst Financial Inc. has launched a new television advertising campaign in the wake of the currency trading scandal that cost the company $691.2 million.

The two, 30-second spots, produced by GKV Communications Inc. of Baltimore, began airing this week and will run for a month.

The commercials are designed to show that Allfirst is made up of dedicated people who have worked at the bank "before, during and after the crisis," said Neel Johnson, executive vice president of marketing at Allfirst. "Sometimes you tend to think of the bank as being senior management. The real essence of the bank is the employees who interact with our customers, and those moments that they spend with our customers."

The commercials come more than two months after the company revealed that Allfirst employee John M. Rusnak hid millions of dollars of losses trading currencies.

An internal investigation, headed by a former top banking regulator, concluded last month that the bank's oversight and internal controls were weak. Six employees were fired and Allfirst's parent, Allied Irish Banks PLC, named one of its executives, Eugene C. Sheehy, as chairman of the bank, replacing Frank P. Bramble, who will retire by April 30.

The scandal sparked speculation that Allfirst, or even Allied Irish, might be sold.

The new ads, which are virtually identical except for the names of employees, begin with a couple getting ready for work. A man puts on his tie in the bathroom and smiles at his daughter. The weatherman predicts "mostly sunny skies."

In another room, a woman adjusts an earring, and in the kitchen a teapot whistles. Downtown, Allfirst employees begin arriving at work by taxi, light rail and on foot as many bustle across the footbridge near the Baltimore Convention Center at 7:28 a.m.

The commercial then switches to real Allfirst employees, such as service manager Karen Hensley, who arrives early to flip on the lights. Telcyn Williams, a portfolio manager, reviews papers, and Shali Patel, a financial specialist, is busy at work.

Fred Hartman, a relationship manager, strides briskly out of his cubicle with a determined look on his face.

As the scenes play out, a voice says: "This morning, nearly 6,000 talented, energetic people came to work; mindful of the importance of their jobs, grateful for the support of their communities and more determined than ever to put you -- first."

About four weeks after the currency trading scandal broke, Allfirst conducted market research asking consumers, including customers, whether they were aware of the loss and for their impressions of the bank.

"We did see some drops in satisfaction scores from very good to good," Johnson said. The bank wants to "regain momentum on building the franchise and building the brand," he said.

The television ads will dovetail with Allfirst's "Family Focus Sweepstakes," which runs from Friday to June 29. The bank plans to insert game cards into newspapers and will give away a free, one-week vacation to Ocean City each week along with other prizes. The grand prize will be a family reunion for 10 in Orlando, Fla.

Johnson declined to reveal how much the bank is spending on the television campaign and sweepstakes promotion.

Eric Starkman, president of Starkman & Associates Inc., a New York-based public and investor relations firm, said that humanizing a company by using employees in ads "can be a very powerful tool" in the aftermath of a crisis.

"The humanization of an institution is a very good strategy, particularly one whose entire business is entirely dependent on the faith and trust of its customers," Starkman said. "People have become so hardened about corporate America ... they don't think of people, they just they think of faceless monoliths."

But he said that an image campaign should be done when a crisis is over. "That strategy would makes a lot of sense to me as long as the avalanche of negative news articles has slowed to trickle and Allfirst does not expect any pending news that could reignite more bad publicity," Starkman said.

Although regulators and law enforcement agencies are continuing an investigation, Johnson said it was the right time for the bank to run the ad featuring its employees.

"We feel we are past that [crisis], and now we are moving on," he said. "This is our message, that we are back out and trying harder than ever to satisfy our customers' needs."

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