When the president fired press secretary Scott McClellan this spring and supplanted him with Tony Snow, he was saying, "We have a communications problem, and it's him." To be sure, he did have a "communications problem," but it wasn't the fault of the hapless McClellan, who daily was hung out to dry before a carnivorous White House press corps to spin a less-than-credible line on a growing range of issues, most notably the war in Iraq. It was all a dodge. The base issue wasn't communications at all. It was George Bush's plummeting approval ratings, driven by the perception, and thus the reality, that his administration was performing poorly.
The insurance business has been in the same fix a whole lot longer than the president. Forever low in the public esteem, the industry has chronically hidden behind its apparent complexity. In utter and somewhat melodramatic exasperation, it has deflected blame to the great unwashed for just not getting it. As someone once said in a Paul Newman movie, "What we've got here is failure to communicate." Never mind that the industry propensity toward messiness and public displays of it--the broker compensation scandals and some ugly stuff in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina come to mind--is the real problem.
Unlike Mr. Bush, though, the elders of the insurance game haven't used their communicators as scapegoats. But then how could they? By and large, they've taken a position bordering on arrogance and as a consequence have woefully neglected their communications efforts over the years.
The parallel between the two came to mind as I and several of my colleagues in the press recently sat down with a group of insurance communicators from some sizeable and sophisticated agency and brokerage operations. We're not talking Big Three or Big Five here, but these were no lightweights.
QUESTIONS OF NOVICES
These were serious, dedicated and interested people. But their questions were striking and rudimentary, revealing as they did the lack of real commitment of their managements for serious public and media relations efforts in terms of dollars and firepower. What's a media kit, and how do I get one, one asked? How do I approach an editor with a story, asked another? How do I develop a relationship with an editor? How do I use an editorial calendar?
I'm not poking fun by any means. It turns out that in most of their operations, there is no dedicated communications person, and resources, human and otherwise, remain sparse. Most of them have little expertise and training in this function; it's just tacked onto their job descriptions. Someone's got to do it, but I guess it's just not that important.
Well, it is. The insurance business is beset with serious problems, many of them of its own devising, which have dragged it down in the public eye for too long. But these, for the most part, are the work of a few bad actors. When all is said and done, there's much to be spread abroad about the good that this industry does--its companies and its agents and brokers--to fuel the economy and to secure the society.
The bad news is that the industry's communications problems still abound and persist and lack sufficient support. The good news is that there are people out there, as in my recent experience, rolling up their sleeves and trying to do something about it.
THOMAS J. SLATTERY, a veteran editor and writer on industry affairs for more than 40 years, is also the managing director of Slattery-Esterkamp Communications, Baldwin, N.Y.
September 1, 2006
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