The question after last week is now whether PR stands for Public Regret or Positive Reports.
In this case it was the semi-red-faced admission by CUNA that its estimates for the number of people who moved to credit unions as the result of Bank Transfer Day weren't quite as robust as initially announced (see related story). With some fanfare CUNA had claimed more than 650,000 fed-up Americans had marched into their respective bank branches, demanded their money and headed down the street to a credit union so as to leave being a customer behind in favor of becoming a "member."
But then, a heck of a lot more quietly and with none of the trumpets that had sounded with the initial release, CUNA backtracked on those numbers, saying it had been too hasty and that its methodology had some errors, and the numbers of transfers is actually closer to 440,000.
The Spin Is In
And that's when it became "Hello, Spin City." Given that the credit union and bank trade associations are both in Washington, none of the reaction to the new numbers should surprise anyone.
The banking trade groups worked quickly to try to discredit credit unions, and by carefully parsing the numbers were able to boast that just "one-third" of the consumers credit unions had claimed as transfers had actually done so. The bankers were able to do that by limiting their references and noting 214,000 people had actually become ex-customers-just in October. They're good with numbers, but somehow forgot to mention the 227,000 CUNA said had already transferred in September in the run-up to Bank Transfer Day (I would expect some of the folks behind all this to be snapped up by one of the presidential campaigns).
All of that led to headlines in American Banker (which is not affiliated with the American Bankers Association) that included "Credit Unions Eat Crow on Customer Numbers" and "Banks Revel in Credit Union Gaffe." Those headlines might make some in credit unions cringe, but should they? First, CUNA was right to admit it goofed and to take the heat. Second, those headlines appeared in industry publications, not the mass media. Third, when the mass media did pick up the story the headlines were much more muted.
But the real issue is: did it matter? Sure, credit unions don't like it when mud splatters on the white hat, yet what are most Americans going to remember-the splatter or the hat? In the wake of all this there were even some who seemed to feel 650,000 new members was something to be proud of, but 440,000, not so much. Are they kidding?
Imagine credit unions had kicked off at the beginning of this year that national membership/awareness campaign that we always hear so much about. If it had driven 440,000 new members to credit unions in 2011 the Herb Wegner Awards would be renamed in the creators' honor. Heck, if it had attracted 100,000 new members it would judged a stunning success. And that's for a national membership campaign that would cost millions. The Bank Transfer Day effort cost credit unions zilch, a budget figure I'm pretty confident most CUs find appealing.
Revised figures or not, crow never tasted so good.
Loose Items From The Notebook
Meanwhile, here's an item leftover in the reporter's notebook:
The New York Times' technology reporter, David Pogue, spoke to the California and Nevada leagues recently. He said he has for years studied why it is that companies continue to churn out products that are technological duds even before being shipped, but his observations are also applicable to most credit unions.
"Sometimes there is something wrong with the product, but most of the time it has to do with the people the product and the priorities around it," said Pogue. "My quest for years has been, 'Why do companies produce products that they know do not work?'"
That research has led Pogue to study the "Factors of Highly Unsuccessful Products." Among them is one certainly applicable to credit unions that might seek to rush a product or service to members. "Companies make a deadline and then work backwards from that, and if things slip, they slip. And what happens is they end up shipping something that is half done and you may never recover from that. People get it into their minds that it is turkey."
Why No One Says, 'Um, Boss...'
So why don't employees point out obvious problems or confront managers? "There is a reason people don't speak up; it's their job. They aren't going to kill their project."
Pogue, who got a round of applause by asking why it is that pull-down menus in software always go by alphabetical order and have the United States dead last, forcing 99% of users to scroll past the likes of Azerbaijan People's Republic of Whatever or Ivory Coast, shared another tidbit he learned by sitting in with workers at tech support call centers.
"They say, 'Your call may be recorded for quality assurance'," Pogue said. "That's not the reason. No, your call is recorded so that the most hilarious ones could be put on a flash drive and passed around for everyone to laugh at."
Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at email@example.com.