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5 things banks need to tell Americans to avoid another 2008

The story of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank is still unfolding. But economic forces were not the only factors at play. Don't discount the power of social media and a scary story.

The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank this month has experts debating whether we’re in another banking crisis. But regardless of where you stand, it’s clear we’re already in a banking communications crisis.

Pundits have speculated that economic forces and bad management put SVB in the position to fail. But in the end, it may have been a few tweets and the power of a scary story that toppled the bank by robbing it of consumer confidence.

Now, the rest of the industry is on eggshells. Advocates for reform are using recent events as further evidence the financial industry is corrupt and in need of regulation. Biden is blaming the rollback of Dodd-Frank and an imbalanced system. Concern is mounting, with many Americans wondering if we’re on the brink of another 2008 financial crisis.


SVB reminded us of an unpleasant truth: perception is reality. All it takes for the next financial institution to fail is for people to believe it’s failing.

At this moment, and in coming months, language matters. Not just to manage perceptions, but perhaps even to shape the course of the economy. Many of our clients in the financial industry are (rightly) wondering what they should be doing or not doing—and saying or not saying.

Which is why we’ve put together a few quick tips, grounded in our experience working during the ’08 crisis and on scores of crisis communication projects since.

Right now, people are scared. Fear thrives in uncertainty and in silence. Every second you aren’t speaking, people are speculating. Err on the side of overcommunicating, even if you think you missed the boat when the news broke. And don’t bury your message. This is a top-of-mind concern for your customers, so surface it. Give it prominent placement on your homepage. Don’t make it hard for your audience to find your messaging. They care about this. Show that you do, too.

Confidence keeps a bank or fund running. Being willing to talk about the collapse of SVB et al. with your investors and customers shows you aren’t shying away from the subject. Direct, simple language suggests you have nothing to hide. 

We’re deducting points from Gryffindor if you use industry jargon like "receivership" or "illiquid," which sounds to readers like you’re being intentionally dense and cryptic.


If the fire department calls to tell you there’s been a fire at your house, they don’t lead with how the fire started and how long it took to respond. They lead with whether your home is standing. 

Half the e-mails we’ve gotten from financial institutions waste time explaining what happened before finally making their way around to "oh by the way, your money is fine." Instead of focusing first on why it happened, get to what it means to your customers and what you’re doing to protect them.

Often, the first instinct is to argue that your leadership, your business, and your balance sheet are different than SVB’s. Unfortunately, you’re likely wasting your breath. 

Again and again, we see the best language is active and forward-looking. Focus on what you do, not what you don’t do. Emphasize your organization has multiple layers of protection in place to shield against these kinds of situations. Layers which, by the way, you’re updating and improving.


Two words will shape the story of the next six months: "bailout" and "crisis." How companies navigate those two terms—and the language around them—will either reinforce or reframe the narrative of what’s happening to our financial system and why. 

Consider finding and using alternative words to "bailout" and "crisis" that frame the situation in a more positive way; like emphasizing a "bank-funded bailout" or "depositor protection"; and referencing it as an SVB-style "collapse" instead of a crisis.

This moment is demonstrating the value of the decentralized dream behind crypto—which might be why we’re seeing a Bitcoin bump. But if crypto advocates want to convert their advantage, they need to moderate their tone. 

Smug tweets don’t help. Neither do 30-page treatises on why we need to burn the banking system to the ground. Take the small win, don’t rub it in people’s faces, and focus on two or three simple ways that having crypto as PART of our financial ecosystem could help offset these kinds of crises.

Every crisis is different. Remember, it’s not what you say that matters. It’s what people hear.

Will Howard is a vice president at maslansky + partners. Lee Carter is the president and partner of maslansky + partners, a language strategy firm based on the idea that "it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear" and author of "Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter." Follow her on Twitter on @lh_carter

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