The merger of Fleet Bank and BankBoston prompted the U.S. Justice Department to mandate the divestiture of 281 bank branches in New England, the largest divestiture in U.S. banking history. National financial institutions, including Bank of America, Chase Manhattan and BankOne, were considered early bidders for the divested branches. However, Philadelphia-based Sovereign Bancorp saw an opportunity to build upon its mid-Atlantic success and position itself as a formidable competitor in the New England middle market. It would also place headquarters in Boston and commit to growing the New England workforce. But first, government relations and communications plans were needed to market this vision to key stakeholders. Once the branches were won, the bank would need another plan to introduce themselves to a community frustrated by bank conversions.
Sovereign Bank retained O’Neill and Associates to develop a strategic communications and government relations plan divided into two phases. The first phase outlined strategies and tactics for the divestiture campaign. The ultimate goal of this campaign was to be named by the Department of Justice as the recipient of the 281 divested branches. This campaign focused solely on government relations because law prohibited Sovereign Bancorp from discussing its proposal with the media or outside entities.
O’Neill and Associates developed and implemented a comprehensive federal relations strategy, educating the congressional delegation about Sovereign’s strengths and its “good fit” with the New England market. Through direct negotiations with key political leaders, O'Neill and Associates secured critical support for Sovereign, providing a strong, positive environment for the Justice Department and Federal Reserve in which to approve the deal. U.S. Senators John Kerry (MA) and Jack Reed (RI) and Congressman Michael Capuano (MA-8) voiced their support publicly in the media, building a broader foundation for Sovereign’s entry into New England.
Throughout the competitive bid process and regional conversions, O'Neill and Associates provided representation of Sovereign Bank before key regional and state officials. O’Neill and Associates shared Sovereign’s plans for creating a competitive and fair marketplace with local elected officials and the attorney general.
The second phase of the strategic plan, the introduction campaign, began the moment Sovereign was announced as the winner. This campaign sought to quickly boost the new company’s identity in the region and position Sovereign Bank as a solid corporate citizen. Given the negative coverage of other bank conversions, O’Neill and Associates developed a strategy to influence expectations and explain to customers what to anticipate during the conversion. Sovereign’s honesty in communicating the problems that accompany conversions demonstrated its dedication to solving problems and was a boon to the bank’s credibility. A major community event on the day of the largest conversion in the largest media market aimed to assuage negative media and gain positive coverage.
O'Neill and Associates also helped create an identity for Sovereign Bank with community groups, non-profit agencies and elected officials through events, sponsorships and corporate contributions. This component of the campaign was critical, because many New England leaders were unaware of Sovereign Bank, as it is based out of state.
O’Neill and Associates executed the communications strategy with a variety of public events, corporate initiatives, announcements and meetings with key opinion-leaders, including:
- Holding a press conference announcing the selection of Sovereign Bank;
- Creating and announcing a “Solutions Center” to reinforce Sovereign’s commitment to be forthright and proactive about problems that occur with conversions, with the motto “a solution for every call, every time;”
- Announcing Sovereign Bank’s three-year community reinvestment plan;
- Arranging media tours across the region for top bank executives to meet with editorial boards of major newspapers, business reporters, and television and radio reporters;
- Working with an advertising agency to coordinate messaging and events;
- Developing a weekly press release campaign targeted to local media, with customer tips to help them through the conversion; and
- Producing a high profile signature event upon the first day of operation into the Greater Boston market by giving free rides to commuters on the Boston area’s mass transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). O'Neill and Associates spearheaded this first ever private-public partnership of the MBTA in the authority’s one-hundred year history.
O’Neill and Associates’ services resulted in Sovereign Bank’s:
- Selection by the Department of Justice to receive the largest bank divesture in U.S. history;
- Retention of 99.8 percent of divested customers, better than the national average of 90 to 95 percent and unprecedented in a market hostile to bank mergers;
- CEO listed among the top 25 newsmakers in 2000 by the Boston Business Journal;
- Conversion-day news coverage leading every Boston newspaper, every Boston-area radio station (including mentions every few minutes during the morning traffic reports), and all Boston-area television stations;
- Coverage by Boston’s WBZ-TV including a “live shot” from a major MBTA subway station, six live reports during the morning newscast between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., and interviews with Sovereign Bank’s CEO and COO; and
- Positive news coverage into the evening on other Boston television stations.
Coverage of Sovereign Bank’s entry into the Boston market began on June 15 and continued throughout the weekend, making a positive impression on more than 1 million people.