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How Silicon Valley Bank’s failure may have been ignited by botched PR

by | Mar 16, 2023 | Public Relations

As the dust settles on the failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), ground zero might turn out to be a one-two punch of mishandled communications. First, there was a newsletter well read by venture capitalists (VCs) that may have begun an erosion of confidence. Second, was what TechCrunch reporter Connie Loizos called a “convoluted press release that was received so badly that it was almost comical.”

While the snowball of the SVB failure gained momentum as rising interest rates soured their significant bond position, it turned into an avalanche on March 8th when the company put out its press announcement of its plans to shore up its balance sheet. The subsequent Zoom call did not allow the attendees to ask questions, and SVB CEO Greg Becker’s lackluster communication did not inspire confidence. Mr. Becker reportedly asked people to “stay calm” and said, “the last thing we need you to do is panic.” Loizos says these are the very words and sentiments you don’t want to hear from a bank CEO.

These two communications from SVB had the opposite effect than what was intended, which resulted in what’s being called the first social media bank run

At Technica, we know how challenging it can be for public relations professionals to urge investor relations (IR) professionals to weave corporate messaging in financial news. We have spent countless hours educating IR teams on the importance of financial communications and the impact it can have on a company’s brand.

Being outside the bank’s area of influence, I cannot know what factors specifically led to this fumbled news announcement. However, as a former NPR journalist and CEO of a firm who has worked with many publicly traded companies, I can’t help but wonder how the outcome might have been different if SVB employed some standard crisis communication tactics. After all, the WSJ reported, “the bank was in sound financial condition on Wednesday. A day later, it was insolvent.”

When reviewing the SVB failure from a public relations lens, several missed opportunities are readily apparent:

Monitoring the media

A developing theory suggests that the panic can be traced back to the email newsletter by Byrne Hobart, The Diff, and an accompanying tweet. The Twitter storm that ensued secured 3.5 million views and 380 retweets, and quoted tweets. Hobart’s tweet read: “Also in today’s newsletter: Silicon Valley Bank was, based on the market value of their assets, technically insolvent last quarter and is now levered 185:1.”

Evan Armstrong, the lead writer of the business-focused newsletter Napkin Math, points out that nearly every VC he knows reads this newsletter. Had SVB been monitoring mentions like this more closely, they might have deduced that VCs would likely start paying close attention to the SVB developments. With this in mind, they have taken extra steps to release the March 8th information more strategically.

Communicating to the layman first

The press release is truly awful. You can review my red pen comments on the document here. It assumes the reader is well-versed in the financial markets and offers no context for why the company is taking these actions. Additionally, the announcement mentions that SVB sold approximately $21 billion of securities, resulting in an after-tax loss of about $1.8 billion in the first quarter of 2023. With some thought, this release could have laid the foundation for a message that would have demonstrated stability and evoked confidence.

It’s common for IR announcements to be dry and full of regulatory language. However, for something as critical as the March 8th announcement, SVB should have considered what implications the press release might have on depositors. This was their change to set the context of the news, an assuage concerns surrounding public confidence in the firm. SVB could have bolstered the information with third-party validation through a quote from General Atlantic expressing their confidence in the firm. A quote from the SVB CEO could have provided further context, and put a human voice to the story.

Press releases are the first opportunity for companies to ensure people think what they want them to think. In the industry, we call this “messaging pull-through.” The release sets the information’s tone and foundation and how to frame it. Of course, people will think whatever they want to, but at least the release has set a foundation that is beneficial to the company.

It’s all in the timing

The timing of the announcement was as unlucky as it was unfortunate. There may have been a material reason SVB chose to post its news announcement on a Wednesday afternoon – minutes before the Silvergate Bank liquidation announcement, that probably accelerated speculation on the health of SVB. Maybe they had no choice in the timing.

That said, suppose that the plans for the new stock offerings were in the works for a few days at least. In that case, SVB could have planned preparations to strategically release the news to give the bank the best chances of controlling the narrative and preventing panic. This could have been done by offering an exclusive interview to a friendly reporter. The resulting news article might have conveyed the information in a way that offered the a neutral reporting of the news, with the implied message that SVB was doing this to take a conservative approach to ensure the company’s health.

The company could have posted its press release, at the same time as the news article went out. In addition, SVB could have held a press conference on Zoom immediately after the news was live to convey these same messages calmly and orderly to their stakeholders.

Presenting a collected position in person

Even though I wasn’t on the call, it is reasonable to think that both sides came to the table stressed and worried. The strategy around the Zoom call was likely rushed, yet it’s hard to believe there wasn’t time for at least a short FAQ of messaging for SVB’s Becker to follow. At the very least, he should have gone into that call armed with a list of other ways to encourage people on the call to remain confident in the firm.

No one wants to hear your banker tell you not to panic. Most PR professionals would have stressed to Becker that under no circumstances should he use that word, because once it is uttered, it affirms what people are already feeling.

Additionally, there was no opportunity for people to ask questions. We frequently work with CEOs who want to hold a press conference and control what’s said by not taking questions, even from friendly reporters. We work with them to understand that their willingness to take questions reflects on their confidence in their position and the news being released.

By moderating these calls, much can be accomplished. Parameters can be set ahead of time of who gets to ask questions and which questions are addressed. Obviously, being willing to take the questions does not guarantee that things would have gone differently for SVB. Still, it could have allowed them to present the firm more humanely and more connected to its community of stakeholders. The courage required to take questions on a topic like your company’s health can make a CEO instantly relatable—and trustable.

The first social media bank run

When it comes to public perception, there’s only so much a company can do to control it. In the case of SVB, panic rose swiftly. The stock price plummeted, and TechCrunch reports Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures said he heard that “$12 billion exited from SVB…[or]…”6.5 to 7 percent of [its assets] that left in one day.” Then, Peter Thiel, USV, and Coatue were the first to send messages and mass emails to portfolio companies to pull out funds immediately.

Bloomberg reports that General Catalyst’s Hemant Taneja said, “the run on the bank was an unintended consequence of many investors trying to do the right thing for their own companies” and that “panic wasn’t the way to handle it.” Instead, he suggests VCs could have guided companies to withdraw enough operating capital for six months rather than pulling out all their cash.

Once the FDIC took control of SVB, the industry rallied around the bank to stem the bleeding. Led by Y Combinator, over 5,000 CEOs and founders representing over 400,000 employees signed this petition imploring the US government to take action to “save American innovation.” Conference calls and backdoor meetings carried on over the weekend between VCs, startups, regulators and politicians, ultimately culminating in what’s being called a “defacto bailout” by the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board. As of this writing, it remains to be seen how much contagion the banking sector will experience.

Maintaining a positive perception of a brand is paramount for any company, especially when the firm’s health relies on its customers feeling safe. It’s clear SVB’s leadership neglected to consider the emotional implications of their press activities. Had they led with more emotional intelligence, perhaps they could have slowed down events enough to give regulators an opportunity to find the firm a buyer. Perhaps, the bank run could have been decelerated. Perhaps the news of SVB’s troubles would have remained a nascent topic of discussion in startup circles, and not a glaring red flag warning people worldwide that more banking troubles might follow.

Lisa Ann Pinkerton
From the newsroom to the boardroom, Lisa Ann has used her keen analytical skills to share technology stories with the world since 2001. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning Technica Communications, founder and Chairwoman of the non-profit Women In Cleantech & Sustainability, co-host of The Earthlings Podcast, an international speaker and moderator and documentary filmmaker. She was named a PR Executive of the Year by the American Business Awards (2020), Female Entrepreneur of the Year for Advertising and Marketing by the Women in Business and the Professions World Awards (2020), and a Woman of Influence by the Silicon Valley Business Journal (2017). She got her start as a broadcast journalist covering environmental science stories for NPR and PBS for over a decade.

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