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Insurers Realize They Have a PR Problem

During the recent meeting of the Property Casualty Insurers Association (PCI), there was a lot of talk about how the insurance industry needs to improve...
November 6, 2007

During the recent meeting of the Property Casualty Insurers Association (PCI), there was a lot of talk about how the insurance industry needs to improve its image. PCI's new President David Sampson has vowed to make fixing the industry's reputation a top priority. "I know that we cannot wave a magic wand and convince the vast majority of the public to love us," said Sampson. "But I do believe that by focusing on the fundamentals of our industry, and through more effective communications with consumers and public policymakers, we can restore their trust in our industry and their respect for our contributions to personal safety and economic security for their families, their communities and our nation."

Joe Annotti, vice president of communications at PCI, said PCI conducted focus groups in Florida this past year and learned that consumers want more transparency and disclosure about their policies. Consumers said they don't like the volatility of insurance rates, and they felt abandoned and caught off guard when their insurance got dropped. "They felt we put profits before people. We have to turn that around," Annotti said.

Pollster Frank Luntz conducted the research for PCI. He said that the public should view insurance companies as leaders in social responsibility, but they don't. Luntz said next time a catastrophe hits, the industry needs to put a human face on its work in the disaster zone.

"You need to let them know you live in their neighborhoods, and your house was destroyed as well," he said. "You need to make them see that you will make them whole again. That's what they want."

Corporate America as a whole is experiencing such a backlash from the public that it has given the word "profit" a negative connotation, Luntz said. Once those profits are tagged as "obscene," as they have been with the insurance industry, Luntz said, "you cannot massage them because the public has decided that you're a bad industry."

Because Washington is also viewed negatively by consumers, Luntz said, the fact that people are screaming for the federal government to fix their insurance troubles is more evidence that the public is angry with the industry.

"If Trent Lott comes to you with a claim for his house that was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, pay it," Luntz said of the Republican U.S. senator from Mississippi who had a claim denied, sued State Farm and vowed to use his influence to bring the insurance industry to its knees. His audience chuckled at the remark. 

What It Means to Agents:  Whenever the insurance industry feels it needs to improve it's image, the ideas you hear emphasize "putting a human face" on insurance. Well, that's what professional, independent insurance agents always do. But it's not a PR face, it's real. As we remind people constantly with our branding program, PIA agents are "Local Agents Serving Main Street America." We are our customers' neighbors and friends, and we care.

It is heartening to note that whenever the industry as a whole is concerned about improving its image, it looks to how favorably the public regards Main Street agents as a model. But the public can tell the difference between someone who really cares and a manufactured PR image of caring. It takes more than just talking about Main Street. Your heart has to be on Main Street. Real concern for people must be followed by action. And the industry has to show special concern for all its customers, not just powerful Senators who lose their homes to hurricanes.

Image is Everything, Insurers Say (New Orleans Times-Picayune 11/3/07)

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