WASHINGTON – A lobbying group led by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has ended a public relations offensive that aimed to keep consumer complaints about banks off a federal website.
A spokesman for the Pawlenty-run Financial Services Roundtable said the campaign had run its course. But Bloomberg News reported this week that three of the country's biggest banks — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup — asked Pawlenty to stop.
The campaign included digital billboards at Washington-area subway stations and some social media. But it did not persuade the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) to drop its plan to post negative consumer narratives.
Bloomberg reported that big banks chastised Pawlenty for undertaking the effort without consulting them. Citing unnamed sources, Bloomberg also said the banks didn't want to needlessly antagonize an agency that polices them.
The Star Tribune reported on the roundtable's campaign a month ago, at which time Pawlenty said the postings would be one-sided and not necessarily accurate. The protection bureau said they added context to the bare-bones data now on the website.
Pawlenty was not available Tuesday, but a roundtable spokeswoman challenged the Bloomberg story and said the trade group did what it set out to do.
"The CFPB plan to post unverified narratives should be concerning to any consumer looking for facts from their government," Alison Hawkins, the roundtable's vice president of communications, said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. The Financial Services Roundtable's "media effort last month raised real questions that should be asked and deserve explanation."
The trade group disputed Bloomberg's report that the campaign ended because the three big banks wanted it stopped. Hawkins said the roundtable "ran, and finished, its media effort as planned."
The banks declined to comment, as did the CFPB.
Don Kettl, dean of the public policy school at the University of Maryland, said the effort appears to have backfired on the roundtable, the main trade group for banks and other financial institutions.
"The ultimate goal of trying to stop [posting of complaints] has not worked well," Kettl said. "And you could make the argument that [CFPB's plan] to use social media to shame big institutions is working."
The government still intends to post stories about the financial industry's poor treatment of consumers. Meanwhile, Bloomberg said that Pawlenty confirmed the end of the campaign and the existence of some criticism of it by some roundtable members.
The public relations campaign came as the government sought comments on its proposal to post stories of consumers who wanted their tales told. The deadline for comments is Sept. 22.
But the roundtable aimed its billboards and social media at the public, not the agency. The ads the trade group ran were built around the theme that rumors don't equal facts.
CFPB officials countered that businesses will be allowed to offer responses to the anonymous complaints at the same time and place where stories are posted.
However, legal experts told the Star Tribune that most corporate lawyers would discourage companies from disputing allegations with online postings for fear of being sued for invasions of privacy, despite the fact that consumer names are not printed.
The Financial Services Roundtable's director of consumer financial services, Anne Wallace, told the Star Tribune in August that posting narratives of consumer complaints could "mislead and confuse." The government, she said, would be giving credence to information it does not verify.
Still, "trying to silence the voice of consumers is not a good idea" from a strategic point of view because resentment of the financial industry for helping cause the Great Recession still runs deep, said Glenn Karwoski of Minneapolis-based Karwoski & Courage Public Relations.
The idea that it's not fair to let people go on a government website and say anything they want "is a rational argument," Karwoski said. "But what you're dealing with here is an emotional subject."
The Financial Services Roundtable has declined to say how much it spent on the campaign to stop complaint postings by the government.