PR and reputation in the insurance sector - Don’t let it bleed


In a guest blog for youTalk-insurance, Sheena Thomson, a crisis and issues communications leader, examines approaches to reputation management, why insurers and brokers must pay close attention in a post-coronavirus world, and some top-line guidance on how to do this successfully.

There is an expression in the media; “If it bleeds, it leads”.

It was coined in 1989 by American journalist Eric Pooley in response to more thoughtful and well researched reporting being side-lined by sensational, attention-grabbing grim and menacing headlines.

The expression has stuck, and sensational stories cause many to fall victim to personal and corporate reputation damage when not handled correctly.

For the most part, the insurance sector has had to help clients as victims of such stories, as reputation insurance cover can be bought.

But we have seen the sector itself in the headlines recently, as the impact of the coronavirus crisis takes its toll.

This is uncharted territory for many in insurance.

Navigating this will be driven by many different factors and approaches will be contingent on interpretation of technical wordings, individual claims, brand integrity and balance sheet considerations.

To do this effectively insurance boards must learn how to deal with media attention. It is good risk management and allows for issues to be mitigated. Whatever you think of the media, working out how to engage with it is always time well invested.

Implementing effective crisis communications requires an understanding and acceptance of the often-conflicting dynamics that can lead to a PR Problem.

Early warning vs head in the sand: Crisis communications is part of the crisis management/business continuity function.

All issues on the risk register must be viewed as a potential reputation issue and a communications advisor must be part of the conversations in its management. Engage with your communications function as soon as possible or hire a specialist. Trust them with the information they need to evaluate the situation and make recommendations. The later they are brought in, the less time they have to do this effectively. Effective mitigation starts with communications being connected to the early warning system.

Ethical vs technical: Often the default position inside organisations – both with the operational and executive teams - is their legal or technical position.

The litigation sector and regulatory environment lead with this. The opposing dynamic can be the ethics of the issue. Organisations might be the technical and legally correct position but is it the right position from an ethical standpoint? A number of these ethical dilemmas have emerged during the coronavirus crisis and public scrutiny has been intense. In insurance, we all want to do the right thing but if we are at risk of putting profits over ethics, the purpose of insurance is left in a very lonely corner of public opinion.  The time and costs of defending a legal or technical position will be drowned out by potential reputational damage and loss of future business.

Friend or foe: Media and communications representatives are not your enemy! Journalists ask the questions on behalf of the public and the PR function is to manage them, and difficult and potentially damaging stories, in addition to generating earned coverage as part of marketing-led initiatives.

What helps with navigating a PR issue is strong and enduring media relations. It is the same in any sector. A good PR operation answers question from a company perspective to ensure there is a balance. Effective crisis communications management starts with ensuring you have the resources to do this and maintaining good trusted relationships with the media. When managing an issue, strong media relations nurtured over time come into their own.

Many in the insurance sector will believe this will blow over and will simply be keeping their heads down. Others are just too busy dealing with claims and the evolving unpredictable nature and consequences of the pandemic.

But there are a number of issues that won’t go away anytime soon and it is prudent to consider how you may deal with these if you have not done so already.

Current insurance sector specific issues we are reading about include; business interruption claims, HM government furlough payment deductions from claim settlements, employee return to work plans, redundancies, emerging mental health conditions and growing public scrutiny of what insurers are doing to help the public and businesses at this time.

In the medium to long term, insurers are facing hardening market conditions, consumer confidence in sector in the wake of the current issues, change in business model and operations i.e. agile working, digitalisation, the growing ‘purpose-led’ consumer movement and investor interest in ESG.

To proactively manage these issues, the top three fundamental “must do’s”:

  • Executive support and access – crucial to ensure their thinking is reflected in narrative, and response times are swift
  • A good crisis communications plan – should be aligned to the risk register
  • Agreed messages or position statement as a response to unsolicited calls from the media on specific identified issues.  This is for passive use only, if asked – be prepared, be honest and ensure tone is relevant.

… and the top three “must NOT do’s”:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

  • Ignore media approaches on issue – this looks worse
  • Rush out a statement – this can compromise its accuracy and impact
  • Speculate or speak “off the record’ i.e. when your words can be used in reporting, but they are not attributed to you e.g. “sources inside the claims department have told us…”   Have robust media policies in place with authorised spokespersons.

The best approach in dealing with a PR issue is the same as any issue on the risk register – recognise the potential on reputation, have early and honest discussions on mitigation strategies and tactics, then have in place the right resources. Only then can you tackle the difficult questions you may be asked and successfully navigate away from the grim and menacing headlines that you may find harder to recover from.



Sheena Thomson's picture

Sheena is a global strategic, crisis and issues communications leader and has built a solid reputation over the course of her career in military media operations, government advisory and corporate communication roles. She is an expert in the field of planning, training and managing communications, both during and after situations that either threaten or impact lives, reputation or business operations.

Sheena specialised in military human resources and media operations as an officer in the Royal Navy, where she mastered the ability to craft clear communication of a complex subject in frequently challenging settings. Since leaving the Royal Navy, Sheena held senior multi-sector communication roles that includes senior advisory or spokesperson roles for NATO, the EU, the ASEAN Secretariat and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi Executive Council General Secretariat.  More recently she has worked in insurance risk consulting and crisis response within the insurance sector. Her crisis management expertise often places her at the centre of sensitive and challenging issues.

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