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Special recall meeting highlights a vocal few
MADISON, Wis. (8/21/12)--As credit unions make decisions such as whether to merge with another credit union, attract new members who are fee sensitive, and open Facebook pages and blogs that encourage commentary, they also may open a Pandora's Box that could expose them to well-meaning members who take up a cause and become a "vocal few."

This past year, credit unions saw what people's protests--both on site at the branch and on websites--over fees did to banks. Credit unions also saw the power of members who provided unsolicited testimonials on websites and media comment pages. There might be an occasional snarky comment, but overall, credit unions have been on the good end of the exchanges, thanks to their member-centric philosophy.  But how should a credit union handle it when a vocal few attempt to drown out the rest of the members? Apparently the answer is to stay member centric.

"Management should consider the balance between the membership at large and the discontent of a small group of members," Brooke Van Vleet, the new CEO of St. Helens Community FCU in St. Helens, Ore., told News Now.

The $160 million asset credit union's board on Aug. 7 was presented a petition with 492 validated signatures out of its more than 15,000 members. The petition seeks a recall of five of its seven board members who supported a proposal to merge with another credit union and terminate a previous CEO's contract. The credit union, after having an independent auditing firm validate the signatures, did what its bylaws called for: scheduled a special meeting at 6 p.m. PT  Sept. 4 at the Scappoose High School Auditorium to address the issues.

"The board stands by its decisions and believes they were made in the best interest of the credit union," said Van Vleet. "They are disappointed the recall has occurred but are moving forward with the process in accordance with the credit union bylaws."

The credit union, like the petitioners, uses its website to help obtain the consistent and clear communications.   One of her first acts as CEO was to communicate the announcement that she was dedicated to being transparent with members and employees.  She recommended the board terminate the letter of intent to discuss a possible merger at this time because it was a distraction, she said in a letter to members on St. Helens Community FCU's website.

In discussing the balance of the vocal few and the membership at large, Van Vleet told News Now that "The bylaws are in place to govern such a petition process, and it is important that the entire membership have the opportunity to voice opinions and not just the vocal minority.  At the same time, it is critical to present a balanced viewpoint and be consistent and clear in communications to the membership and staff."

She noted that "we respect the right of members to voice their opinions through this process, but as the CEO I do not support the recall effort. I believe this is a baseless and impulsive recall that is only intended to be disruptive to the credit union."

Credit unions as well as other organizations "see more of this happening, with a few members more vocal," she said.

Other credit unions are encountering similar situations.  In some, members may go to the media to get their opinions across. For example, Thomas Leone of Vero Beach, Fla., wrote a letter Aug. 19 to the editor of TCPalm.com, telling why he was opposed to Indian River FCU's proposed merger with Lakeland, Fla.-based MidFlorida CU:  "If it ain't broke, then don't fix it," he said, noting he is "quite satisfied" with the credit union as it currently exists and the credit union "serves our community better than a larger one."  He urged members to attend a special meeting today to cast their vote on the merger proposal.

And last week, 15 or so members of the more than 70,000 members of Technology CU, San Jose, Calif., rallied for two hours to show their opposition of the credit union's proposal to change its charter to a mutual savings bank.  They were allowed to protest outside the front of the credit union so long as they didn't block entry and exits. The credit union even sent an employee out with bottled water during the event.

Vocal members also go to social media, where the credit union has no control of how its brand is used. For example, the brother of a woman killed in an auto accident wrote a blog complaining about the insurance company that refused to pay the death benefit. The message went viral (American Banker Aug. 20).

Although it is not new to see customers of companies "taking control of a brand via social media, what is new is the growth in social media--that's what brands should be thinking about, Frank Eliason, Citi's senior vice president of social media told the Banker (Aug. 20). "The customer owns the company message via social media."


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