Monthly Archives: September 2009

Overdraft protection: A money churner for banks, money burner for consumers

When I grind pencil lead into my tax worksheet next year, another dark thought besides the financial bailout will cross my mind.  Make that two $35 debit card overdraft fees from Bank of America that my college kid cost me.

He just scored 86 percent on his fluid mechanics test but balancing his debit/checkbook account stumps him.  Not just him either.  Bank account reconciliation now involves knowing when transactions are deferred and how long they stay outstanding. 

First of all, debit transactions no longer are cash withdrawals in real time.  In the past, if an account had insufficient funds, then the banks would deny the withdrawal, making it impossible to rack up non-sufficient-fund fees. 

Now banks give customers the privilege of overdrawing their accounts for cash and outrageous fees.  To avoid those fees, customers have to first know their true account balances, which has become more difficult, because banks don’t withdraw funds until they reconcile and hard post transactions to customer accounts.  That deferral process can take days.

That practice also enables banks to post purchase transactions out of chronological order and “reorder” them from largest to smallest.  That can turn what would be one overdraft charge to two or three or more.   Banks say reordering assures that rent is paid before a pack of cigarettes.  It’s comforting to know that banks are looking out for our interests even if it costs us dearly.

Delayed processing also makes it next to impossible to get a real-time account balance from online review.  The banking industry’s lack of transparency is the engine that powers the money-burning machine, if you are a consumer, or money-churning machine, if you are a bank.  Only those customers who keep every ATM receipt and who manually enter all transaction amounts to get running account balances avoid the “confusion by design.”

A week ago, Bank of America capitulated to consumers and Congress and will now allow customers to opt out of debit card overdraft protection.  Curiously, the term “protection” conjures up mobsters offering protection and extorting payoffs. 

Parallel worlds certainly.  Debit card overdraft fees most recently have injected $38 billion annually into the banking industry’s slumping revenue stream, an enviable amount of capital for any protection racket.

Now for some gonzo journalism.  A week before the bank’s announcement, I tried to persuade a customer service rep to allow my son to opt out of overdraft protection.  The rep said no.  The system doesn’t work that way, she said.

So I researched the subject and found an article this month in the New York Times that quoted Anne Pace, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, saying that “the bank allowed customers to opt out of overdraft services on a ‘case-by-case basis.’”

The article cited a case where the bank exempted a customer with “mental illness” from overdraft protection.  So I called back customer service, cited the precedent, and said although my son is not mentally ill, he is a college student.  You know the type.  “Hi, mom.  Send money” is the slogan.

The rep checked with her manager and said that Bank of America would process my request as “pay no NSF fee,” but added that the fix would not totally ensure that the fees would be waived every time. 

That was unsettling.  The bank will grant an opt-out request but has doubts whether a status change to the account will really propagate throughout the ATM network?

Anyway, I’m still missing seven crinkly $10 bills to pad my wallet.  So I will try and contact Pace to see if she feels my pain.

I’d like a refund and will begrudgingly agree to the standard disclaimer that that Bank of America is not admitting to predatory banking practices and consumers are ultimately responsible for managing their account balances.

Seriously, I hope that she provides insights into the bank’s lobbying and PR strategy on the overdraft issue.  I hope she comments on the bank’s tactics to communicate top-level decisions to its customer service reps – the frontline for the brand and reputation of the company.  A couple of days before the opt-out announcement, the reps were in the dark.

I am prepared to align my expectations with the way the world works.  My lighter wallet somehow feels comfortable against my backside now.  I’m at peace before I’ve even made my peace.  Experience does that.

Contributed by Mike Wysatta, Business Development Manager at Ryder Scott and PRSA Houston Board Member.

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Essay Question: Option 1

Remember completing the dreaded essay question?  If it’s written well it could mean getting a good (or at least reasonable) grade on an exam, being promoted to a better job, or– as in this case–being selected as a finalist for the Public Relations Foundation of Houston’s  (PRFH) $3,000 scholarship. 

This past spring, applicants for the 2009/2010 PRFH scholarship had four topics from which to choose and one single-spaced typed page in which to share their thoughts. The following essay is by finalist Jennifer Miller, currently a junior at the University of Texas majoring in advertising. It provided much food for thought as she explained how her experiences as a sometimes awkward but always polite restaurant server have prepared her for a career in the always changing and not always polite world of communications.  I think you’ll enjoy reading it as much as the scholarship committee did.

           Spilling queso, precisely chile con queso, down your shirt teaches you many things. First, and most obvious, only professional jugglers can balance skillet queso, salsa, chips, and a tray full of drinks. Second, since everyone else is laughing at you, you might as well laugh with them. And third, the unexpected makes everything either interesting or frustrating, and the difference is how you choose to react. 

            Working in a restaurant taught me, first and foremost, balance, how to be polite to impolite strangers, responsibility, and flexibility. On any given night, anything, actually everything, would go wrong. We were out of fries, the broccoli was cooked wrong, the fork had a spot on it, the drink isn’t strong enough, or “I ordered chicken, not steak!” Although telling the red-faced woman that I specifically told the chef not to put tomatoes in the pasta, redirecting the blame did not help the situation. One of the most important, and pride-swallowing, lessons I learned was to take responsibility for the problem; even if the fault is not mine, it is my responsibility to find the solution. The customer’s pasta does not become magically tomato-free by blaming the chef, but apologizing, taking the responsibility, and fixing the problem will hopefully put a smile back on her face.

            This quality transferred directly into my next job: the account executive position at the Daily Texan. This time, clients are paying hundreds for their ad space, not $12.95 for Cajun Chicken pasta. The Daily Texan works as a team, but once again, I am the only liaison between the team and the client. When one member makes a mistake, the responsibility falls to me, and now I easily accept it. A new challenge that I faced at the Daily Texan, one the restaurant didn’t prepare me for, was overcoming rejection. I’ve always considered myself a positive person, but my first month confronted my positivity. I had never taken a sales position before and I was not prepared for the amount of rejection that came with it. Through self-encouragement, encouragement from my co-workers, and getting rejected 100+ times, I found the ability to move past it. Receiving “no’s” is by no means my favorite pass-time, but I am now strong enough to handle them and proceed on with full confidence.

            Although I feel both jobs have taught me valuable lessons for the future, the most important lesson was one that I experienced, rather than learned. After a little searching, I found my home-away-from-home at a school with 55,000 undergraduates in Texas Spirits. I’ve always known this about myself, but its been particularly exemplified through my membership and leadership in this organization: In life, whatever you do, you will receive as much as you put in. I dedicate a large amount of myself to Texas Spirits, and through friendships, work, and life experiences I receive it back tenfold. Whatever it is I’m passionate about, I put my entire self into it, because that is the only way to truly achieve my goals.

I view every experience I have as a learning experience—I’m always looking to see what I can take from the situation. Whether it’s finally learning to balance a tray or realizing how to react in a situation, I don’t let lessons pass me by. These lessons I’ve learned in past will help me in the future, especially in a Public Relations job. It’s important to be confident with clients, even if the previous one tore you down; it’s important to be flexible and repair a problem, instead of assigning blame; and it’s important to not only be passionate, but to use that passion as motivation. All experiences relate to each other, and all provide something you can take from it. I used to barely be able to hold a tray with two hands, but after dedication, and 3 months in a restaurant, I can proudly say that I can hold a tray with 5 plates above my head, with a single hand.

Jen Miller would love to hear from you, especially if you’re offering encouragement and/or a paying job that’s not restaurant related.  She can be reached at jenmiller@mail.utexas.edu.

Contributed by Eydie Pengelly, APR, principal of Marcomm.biz and president of the Public Relations Foundation of Houston (http://www.prsahouston.org/foundation)

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Generational Diversity: The good, the bad, and the ugly

“Serenity now!” This quote from Frank Costanza on “Seinfeld” is increasingly becoming my favorite mantra for the workplace.  When my uber-generation-Y colleague communicates in 20 e-mails what she could easily say to my face  – serenity now! When I’m treated like “the little sister” because I’m numerically the youngest in my group – serenity now!  When a peer calls me a suck up because I respect my boss – serenity now!

Don’t get me wrong, being a generational mutt has its perks.  I’m a Generation Y-er by birth, a Gen X-er by nature, and I was raised by boomers. So I get it! I get that my boomer boss may occasionally turn to me for help in resolving some techno glitch, and I’ve learned not to take it personally when a Gen Y-er colleague throws an occasional hissy fit.

Yes, generational differences can create conflict and miscommunication in the workplace, but they also drive our ability to effectively communicate with diverse audiences – and as PR professionals, that’s what we do.

On Wednesday, October 7, we’ll be discussing generational diversity at the PR Day New Pros Roundtable. Join me and three other panelists as we discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of working in a generationally diverse team.  From budding professionals to seasoned pros, the panelists will answer everything you’ve wanted to know about different generations but were too afraid to ask.

In the meantime, to quote Pat Benatar, “Hit me with your best shot.”  What are some of your workplace horror stories? Did diverse generational perspectives help your communications team lead a successful project? We’d love to hear your stories.  Post your comments to this blog or to the PRSA Houston page on Facebook.

Click here for more information about PR Day 2009 or to register.

Contributed by Ariana Montelongo, public relations and minority outreach coordinator for LifeGift Organ Donation Center.

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Socrates, Aristotle, Plato… and what 2,000-year-old guys have to do with public relations today?

The PRSA Houston September luncheon focused on “The Socratic Approach to Effective Organizational Communications.” Alan Hilburg, President and CEO of Hilburg and Associates, taught us how the 2000-year-old Socratic Method can be used to structure and deliver more effective organizational communications to both internal and external audiences. More specifically, we learned how to use the Socratic Method to increase personal and departmental brand equity with colleagues and stakeholders, and how to transform how organizational communications is valued within our organizations. See the @PRSAHouston tweets from the luncheon for details.

Applying Socrates thought to PR reminded of what I recently read in Dr. Robert Heath’s book, “Handbook of Public Relations.” In it, the UH Professor cites the ancient Greek philosophers as the founders of the rhetorical roots of public relations’ two-way symmetrical model.

It was Aristotle, not Socrates, who concluded that rhetoric is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” So, what did Aristotle consider the source of the persuasiveness? “A statement is persuasive and credible either because it is directly self-evident or because it appears to be proved from other statements that are so.”

Aristotle believed that “persuasion is achieved by the speakers’ personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.”

According to Aristotle people rely on “good sense, good moral character, and good will” to draw conclusions from debated matters. Conversely, he also thought, “false statements and bad advice are due to one or more of the following three causes. (1) Men either form a false opinion through want of good sense; or (2) they form a true opinion but because of their moral badness do not say what they really think; or finally, (3) they are both sensible and upright, but not well disposed to their hearers, and may fail in consequence to recommend what they know to be the best course.”

Now Plato would have argued – Does a world of knowledge and sound choice exist independent of the rhetorical process? Is the rhetorical process (dialogue) engaged by ethical people the best means for discovering truth and making sound judgment?

To which, Aristotle believed that the ends of social discourse was social good.

Heath wisely concluded that, “ethics arise from the process. The end is not predetermined but rather forged through the process. If an priori conclusions exists, then rhetoric is not needed; it operates in the realm of the contingent – of decision making. When a rhetoric recommends a conclusion or an action, he or she does so ‘on the ground that it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the ground that it will do harm.'”

So, in a final retort, Aristotle would blog, “if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any others, and at the highest good.”

Contributed by Karen Naumann Blanchard, APR, president of Naumann Blanchard, LLC , and PRSA Houston Board Member.

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