It’s fashionable for agencies and agency types to pump out whitepapers and think pieces tying any current bit of news to their particular discipline. Open LinkedIn on any given Friday and you’re likely to find deeply thought-out, if not researched, posts like “What Marketers Can Learn from this Year’s Kentucky Derby Winner” or “How Your PR Team Should Respond to Ted Lasso S3.”
This is not one of those articles. In fact, the problems at Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) were neither caused by any communication strategy nor is it likely that anything their marketing team said or did could have prevented it. Those are technical financial issues for bankers and accountants and other left-brained professionals.
But other brands and other institutions will find themselves in similar situations where what and how they communicate can make a difference. We’re just here to take a look at what we can observe from outside the room: What we saw; What might have made a difference in the short term; and What we know now.
March 8, 2023 – An Ordinary Wednesday
Early in the afternoon west-coast time, SVB sent out a news release over PRNewswire announcing a new stock offering. By itself, this is not unusual. Companies do it every day. But this release was understandably written in haste, and it shows. Using very technical language and lacking any quotes to offer perspective or reassurance, the text takes about 500 words to tell the world two things:
- SVB is taking a big loss; and
- The bank needs to raise capital.
A financial institution is nothing without the confidence of its stakeholders. Using a combination of legalese and corpspeak to communicate those two particular messages could hardly inspire confidence.
March 8, 2023 (cont.) – A Wednesday Gets Worse
When it became clear that initial reaction to the bank’s release was less than enthusiastic, SVB CEO Greg Becker held a video call with some of his largest stakeholders to discuss the situation. This is consistent with what I think most communication professionals would advise. In strategy, anyway. The execution may have missed a bit.
Accounts from some of the participants don’t exactly paint a picture of a tightly focused and messaged event. In fact, it appears that the bank executive told major investors and depositors that they owed loyalty to SVB. Reported verbatims from the 10-minute call included the phrases “stay calm,” and advising depositors to “not panic.”
There may be several things one might do to reassure a nervous audience but screaming “Remain calm!” in their faces is probably not the best one.
And if you don’t want words like “panic” in the conversation, don’t put them there.
It’s important to note here – and this is again from reports we can’t verify but haven’t been disputed – that the hosts of the call did not take questions. It’s nearly impossible to earn people’s trust if you don’t even hear what their specific questions are. And if you’re not listening, you’re not communicating.
So, to recap where we’ve been so far:
- Bank issues dense, jargon-filled news release announcing, essentially, that they’re taking a big loss and in desperate need of cash.
- Bank holds Zoom call (broadcast?) to tell major stakeholders they’re wrong and should just calm down.
- Bank lets stakeholders just fill in the blanks for themselves.
And how did the financial community react to these efforts so far? Let’s check-in:
Thursday March 9 – A Thursday
Predictably, scared people tend to do scared-people things. In this case, that meant the opposite of putting money into Silicon Valley Bank or investing in its stock. In fact, three-fifths of SVB’s market cap –its financial value as a company – disappeared in a day. As word spread through the bank’s tight-knit community of stakeholders, the withdrawals accelerated.
Throughout these crucial hours, SVB maintained radio silence. No further explanations, no calm assurances, no clarifications. No significant communication that we can see.
At least from SVB.
Nature abhors a vacuum and there’s always somebody ready to fill in the blank for you. And in this case, those doing the talking were some of the most wired, connected and high-profile gossips in history. Let’s look at one example, this quickly deleted tweet from Michael Burry:
If you don’t know who Michael Burry is, he’s the guy who famously called the 2008 mortgage crisis. They made a movie about it called The Big Short. Burry was played by Christian Bale.
Anyway, as I said, Burry posted this cryptic message late in the business day Thursday on the west coast. He did delete it soon after, as he often does, but not before it already had been seen by almost 90,000 people who clearly are interested in financial markets, plus the online followers of more than 300 of them, too.
True or not, bad news travels fast.
March 10, 2023 – A Friday
A financial institution is completely dependent on the trust of its stakeholders. Once that is lost, things can start to unravel quickly. They certainly did in this case. As more and more customers withdrew most or all of their deposits, and with no help available from capital markets because the stock price continued to dive, SVB was underwater.
That’s when the people from the FDIC and OTS show up in your office and, if you didn’t already guess that it was over, they’ll tell you.
In this short space (too late for that now) this is by necessity a simplified version of events at the end of the story for SVB. In this case, it’s unlikely that anything a comms team did would have changed the outcome. But it wouldn’t have hurt.
And there are lessons here for financial institutions and others that may one day need to go to the well of trust they’ve worked so hard to build.
A View From the Outside
Most important is to prepare for that moment NOW. Invest in your community and your relationships when things are “normal”. That starts with communication and that means listening. You can’t live up to customer expectations if you never ask what those expectations are.
As you get to know your audience, you’ll have a better understanding of who they are and where they get their information. I have no way of knowing if SVB had eyes on Michael Burry’s Twitter feed that day, but they should have known that a fair number of the people whose confidence the bank depended on did.
No matter what industry or environment (or “ecosystem” for the tech bros) you operate in, your audience is made up of people. Real people who make decisions on an emotional level. They are often emotional, sometimes irrational and frequently conflicted human beings. Earning and holding their trust is less a matter of what you say than what you do. And less what you do than how you make them feel.
Communicating with emotional and conflicted beings is never helped by confusing them or using language more appropriate for a Court of Chancery than a kitchen table. Before you put anything in writing ask yourself: What would a human being sound like expressing this same idea? Before you speak to them: Would a 9th grader understand this?
Most important is to remember that the best time to build a fire is before you’re cold.