The debt industry has a story, but it is one told about it, rather than by it, generally.

And, according to a crisis management consultant, that’s the wrong way for the industry’s stories to be told.

Consumer media outlets — your Wall Street Journals; your nightly news segments; your Times, both Financial and New York — generally have one story about the industry that they tell, and it goes like this: the debt collection industry is among the most complained about industries in the American marketplace, and these complaints are based on egregious behavior exhibited by debt collectors who use unscrupulous tactics to get the last nickel from widows and fixed-income seniors.

The media are also quick to use data — specifically FTC and CFPB complaint numbers — with which to measure the abuses against consumers. They rely on first-person anecdotes from affected consumers. What they don’t have, often, are collection industry voices or data, at least according to a panel discussion of consumer reporters at last week’s insideARM Larger Market Participant Summit.

The panel consisted of Teddy Downey of The Capitol Forum, Rachel Witkowski of The Wall Street Journal, and Patrick Hillmann of the crisis management firm Levick. [Editor’s note: Paul Kiel, the ProPublica reporter who authored this article released today, as well as last year’s well-read Color of Debt article, was slated to be on the panel as well, but fell ill and was unable to travel to the conference.]

It was Hillmann who described the industry as one in crisis — almost perpetually. And while most in the industry see that as a true statement, few have taken the next step to develop a Crisis Management Plan that will safely navigate a company through a rough news cycle. Or even to get positive news stories out into the media stream.

Part of that Crisis Management Plan, according to both Hillmann and Witkowski, is a willingness to engage with reporters. And this has been a blindspot for the industry as a whole. Too often, management at collection agencies have felt that keeping a low profile would also keep them out of the cross-hairs of regulators and consumer attorneys. However, collection agencies in the marketplace aren’t able to hide from regulators; and, actually, it’s that kind of philosophy that contributes often to the negative news cycle. “If there isn’t some sense of open communication,” says the Wall Street Journal‘s Witkowski, “it makes it difficult to have a relationship.”

That relationship with reporters is a key aspect of a Crisis Management Plan — but it’s also a relationship that can’t be faked. “Canned responses can make a company sound insincere,” says Hillmann, especially responses that eschew hard data for unsupported platitudes. “The more data that you can provide to journalists, the better,” The Capitol Forum‘s Downey told the audience. “In particular, if you can highlight the costs and benefits related to a certain topic of interest, it will likely help a reporter see your side more clearly.”

“The CEO who is most available is best,” added Hillmann. While all agencies should consider some sort of media training, specifically for talking to reporters, consumer groups, and regulators, reporters, for the most part, aren’t interested in talking to a PR person. “Find ways to train your executives to be more comfortable when they’re speaking with reporters,” Hillmann said. “You want to make sure your process enables your team to get the reporter in touch with the person or people within your company who have the best information.”

Reporters want to be able to support a story with figures and hard data. According to Hillmann, “Anything you can do to help explain things clearly and concisely is good. Give journalists a lot of useful information, but make sure it tells a clear story that can be explained to the general public.”

Stories that would be most valuable to pitch to media outlets — whether its insideARM or the Wall Street Journal — are ones where you have data that backs up a clear point of view. Of particular interest to financial journalists, for instance, would be information and data that shows inconsistencies in how the CFPB is reporting complaint numbers. “We don’t want magic stories about how you’re helping,” Witkowski said. “We want data — we want to see direct effects.”


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