Banking on Keating: One Year in, ABA President Frank Keating Offers His View of What Is Required for Banks to Prevail in the Arenas of Washington and the Media. It's Not Defense

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Frank Keating," says an ABA colleague, "is made for the medium." The "medium" being television. Actually, the former Governor of Oklahoma is at home speaking in front of any audience, whether it be a banker convention, a congressional committee, or one-on-one with a TV anchor.

It's a valuable skill, and Keating has made full use of it in his first year as President and CEO of the ABA. All told, he did dozens of media interviews in 2011, many of them on national television. The latter have included ABC World News, CNBC, Fox Business News, Bloomberg, and MSNBC. Most of the appearances were related to financial issues, but some were on topics ranging from the federal budget deficit to national security. Keating's varied background (besides being a governor, he was an FBI agent, assistant secretary of the Treasury, and a member of the Rivlin-Domenici Debt Reduction Task Force) makes him a sought-after guest on TV news shows.

As he points out, "If someone wants to talk to me about national security issues, I can say, 'Remember, part of national security includes protection against cyber attacks on financial institutions,' and then mention the indispensability of a healthy and well-functioning banking system."

But in most cases, the questions are about banking issues, and here Keating believes that ABA's high visibility in the media is a member service.

"Our 5,000 bank members," he said in a recent interview, "spend their days visiting customers, providing services to depositors, borrowers, and clients. It's the responsibility of their trade association to advance the positives of banking and the banking industry in America. We are their advocates."

Also, he says, "ABA is there to take the arrows of justified or unjustified criticism of the industry, as opposed to individual banks having to do that." An example was the interchange debate in which ABA explained why charges are required in order to provide the service.

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"If I were a bank CEO," Keating continues, "I'd like to be able to turn on CNBC or FOX or read a newspaper and see that my trade association is defending me against unfair criticism, or advancing a positive agenda."

As much as he unhesitatingly defends the worth, indispensability, and integrity of the banking industry--and urges bankers to do the same--Keating is careful to always speak not about what's best for bankers, but about what's best for ordinary people--the depositors, borrowers, and stockholders of banks. He also does not hesitate to acknowledge reality.

"I've always found the best policy is just to tell the truth," he says. "If the truth is not pleasant, the best thing to do is say, 'Well, that was an error,' or 'That was an oversight, and here is what we're going to do going forward.' You cannot, in a free society, defend the indefensible. You cannot advance an agenda of falsehoods.

"We want to always be factual and be helpful to advance the interest of ordinary Americans," Keating continues. "They have to trust us. That's why to me integrity and bipartisanship are essential hallmarks for the success of the ABA."

Don't tread on me

Frank Keating knows politics. And he knows what it's like to campaign for office, which he's done successfully four times in Oklahoma (twice as governor; twice in the state legislature). It gets rough out there, and ugly. And while the former FBI agent doesn't go so far as to embrace Sean Connery's memorable line from the movie The Untouchables--"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue"--Keating did say this at ABA's Annual Convention this fall: "I took the position when I came aboard the ABA, every time somebody kicks us in the shins we will kick back."

In the interview, he expanded on the point.

"It's important to view what ABA does as a political campaign," says Keating. …