Insurance News

Insurers Can Polish Their Image While Boosting Bottom Line

Posted on: May 30, 2009

Why is it that so many people seem to hate—or at the very least, distrust—the insurance industry? What impact, if any, does this undercurrent of suspicion and hostility have on the bottom line? And is there anything the business can do to improve its image, or is insurance doomed to be forever tarnished by a poor reputation?

These are some of the hard questions I’ve been addressing for the past two years in a series of public speeches around the country. I’ve spoken to representatives in every segment of the business, and the response is all too often resignation at best, and cynicism at worst.

My premise is that this industry can clean up its act by more proactively engaging the public, the media and the politicians—elected and appointed—who either distort the industry’s image or act on negative stereotypes.

My big complaint about insurers is that too many assume public opinion can never be changed, so instead of aggressively defending themselves, they curl up in their shells and wait for the periodic floggings to stop. They crawl away when the coast is momentarily clear while bracing for the next inevitable public relations debacle.

Muhammad Ali took the heavyweight championship from George Foreman with a similar “Rope-A-Dope” strategy. The difference is that Ali had a plan—absorbing punishment for a few rounds to make his opponent arm-weary, leaving him free to retaliate and vanquish his defenseless foe later on.

However, whenever insurers pull their own version of “Rope-A-Dope,” their attackers never tire, and they never really fight back—taking their beatings in sullen silence, conceding defeat. That’s got to stop.

So why is it that the public dislikes and distrusts insurers? It’s pretty simple:

• Insurers are big, deep-pocket targets.

• The business of insurance is complicated and misunderstood by most.

• Carriers keep shooting themselves in the foot, wounding the entire industry.

• Insurance is too commoditized, with price often being the only value sold.

• The industry does not reflect the diverse society it serves.

• Consumer media focus on bad news, and insurers do little to engage them on more positive stories.

• There are no positive role models in popular culture.

Let’s start with this latter point. If any industry was in need of a pop culture hero, it is insurance.

Indeed, the public attitude toward insurers is best exemplified by a telling scene in the TV program “Leverage,” about a former insurance company fraud investigator who loses his son after his own employer turns down a claim for an “experimental” medical treatment.

Bitter and determined to seek revenge, the star recruits a band of master, multitalented thieves—who he regularly hunted down in his former job—to join him in a Robin Hood-like quest to help the “everyday person,” often at his old insurer’s expense.

Guess who you root for?

The character who replaces the star as head of the carrier’s special investigation unit is a typical corporate stooge and sleazy jerk, without pity or any sense of decency. He toils for an immoral carrier whose standard operating procedure is to reject every claim out of hand—even obviously legitimate ones—and to make policyholders fight for every dime. This is presented as the norm in the industry, rather than the exception.

The two cross paths in an early episode, in which the star is defending someone accused of burning down their property. The star insists his client is innocent, but his successor is contemptuous of our white knight, spitting out the immortal words that sum up what many people falsely believe about this industry.

“We’re insurance men,” he sneers. “We don’t care who’s guilty or who’s innocent—only who pays!”

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Insurers—in the rare times they do appear in TV, movies or novels—are almost always the bad guys. Is this life imitating art, or just lazy, stereotypical writing? Is the best image this industry can hope for on the pop culture scene a sourpuss caveman, a sassy gecko and an accident-prone duck?

Sadly, insurance seems to be unique in its lack of public role models. Despite news stories galore about police brutality, medical malpractice and ambulance-chasing attorneys, dozens of police, medical and legal dramas portray cops, doctors and lawyers saving lives and property. Yet there are no saintly, “McDreamy”-like insurance characters of any kind.

In fact, the last positive pop icon from the world of insurance I can recall was “Longstreet”—a BLIND insurance investigator in an ABC show that ran for only 23 episodes in the early 1970s.

So, does this mean insurers are doomed to never be loved or trusted? I think not.

I believe there are steps the industry can and should take to reboot its image and convince people to give insurers the benefit of the doubt. To accomplish this, carriers must:

• Reject the notion that perception is reality, and that insurers will never be respected.

• Stop being so defensive when the industry does screw up.

• Be far more proactive and innovative in publicizing all the good the industry does. That includes encouraging positive insurance role models in pop culture.

• Enlist every employee, from the CEO down to clerical help, to defend and promote the industry.

• Market the vital services insurers provide, not just the price of policies.

• Diversify the work force—especially among senior management—so it better reflects society.

To begin this intervention, insurers must take responsibility for their own reputation. They aren’t merely the victims of public misunderstandings, media bias and political grandstanding. Insurers are not doing themselves any favors with their standard circle-the-wagons, us-versus-them mentality that alienates “civilians” (those who are outside of, and relatively unfamiliar with how the business works).

One way to make a difference in how people perceive and treat the industry is to actually admit that insurers make mistakes and even do bad things from time to time—just like any other business.

Take the classic wind-versus-water coverage debate following Hurricane Katrina, and all the negative press prompted by the relatively few claims that did not get paid because flooding is not covered under standard homeowners policies (including those of two Mississippi members of Congress—Republican Sen. Trent Lott and Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor—who caused the industry endless grief).

First of all, insurers could have been far more proactive in publicizing the fact that almost all Katrina claims were paid in a timely manner. Insurers should have facilitated press interviews with satisfied policyholders, and run commercials featuring how insurance made them whole again. Reporters could have been invited to ride with adjusters into what looked like war zones, showing the industry in action, getting checks into the hands of desperate customers.

Second, the industry could have defused the anger spurred by those claims that were rejected by being far more aggressive in educating the public about what their policies cover. I realize insurance is just a contract, but a policy shouldn’t merely represent the right to sue. People should not need attorneys to understand what is and what is not covered—especially on personal lines policies.

Insurers would gain credibility by acknowledging this fact and making their policies easier for the average person to comprehend, while being more aggressive in selling supplemental flood coverage—and getting signed declinations to cover themselves in case of future disputes.

Another opportunity lost was in September 2007, when a cover story broke in Bloomberg Markets, headlined “The Insurance Hoax: When Disaster Strikes, Insurers Use Secret Tactics To Cheat Homeowners.” Instead of speaking out, most insurers chose to lay low and hide behind attorney advice not to comment.

The industry essentially left its chief spokesperson—Robert P. Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute—all alone to respond. And while I found the article one-sided, and criticized Bloomberg for failing to give Mr. Hartwig’s challenges to the story’s accuracy and conclusions a fair amount of space, the fact is the industry ran off and hid in a cave until the whole controversy blew over.

No matter how passionate Mr. Hartwig is in his defense of the industry, and no matter how many facts he has at his disposal, or how convincingly he makes his case, he alone cannot change public opinion.

Insurers should have come out in droves to defend their business against the article’s allegations about systematic, intentional short-changing of claimants. Public forums, media appearances and advertising could have cast the industry is a much more positive light.

Meanwhile, when New York’s attorney general at the time, Eliot Spitzer, exposed shameless bid-rigging and contingency fee abuse among major brokers and carriers, instead of dismissing this blatant breach of trust as inconsequential, the industry could have called for a commission, composed of insurer and public members, to probe, disclose and explain how intermediaries are compensated, and put in place consumer protections to keep such criminal conspiracies from happening again.

Instead, the industry demonized Mr. Spitzer—who, while certainly no saint (as his later personal misbehavior as governor demonstrated), did catch insurers and brokers with the proverbial smoking gun. Acknowledging mistakes and correcting them is a good way to restore trust.

Most recently, insurance was hammered because of American International Group’s federal bailout. Where were the public service ads reminding everyone that AIG’s insurance subsidiaries are sound and did not cause the company’s downfall, and that property-casualty carriers do not need—nor do they want—Troubled Asset Relief Program funds? The industry should be shouting this from the rooftops.

How else might the industry turn around its sorry reputation? Here are some suggestions:

• Sell service, not commodity products. Insurers and their agents must be seen as trusted advisers, not policy-peddlers.

• Better promote all the good the industry does in rebuilding homes and businesses, improving workplace and highway safety, as well as tackling global warming.

• Make reputational risk management a critical part of every insurer CEO’s job.

• Use PR reps as booking agents, not spin doctors. Give them the leeway to bring reporters into the insurance process, to show carriers in action doing good things. And make sure the top dogs are available for interviews, especially during a crisis.

• Turn employees into good-will ambassadors. You have an army of people earning their living from insurance, being told to keep their mouths shut. Give them the training—and more important, the permission—to defend and promote the business at family functions, community gatherings and wherever else someone bashes the business.

• Actively engage the press and public by meeting with editorial boards and holding open forums with the community—not just during crises, but on a regular basis.

• Work with local high schools to better inform teenagers about insurance, starting with auto coverage. Provide guest lecturers and textbook material about how the business works and why its role is critical.

• Diversify the work force, including the top levels. Few company senior managements reflect what America looks like these days in terms of race, nationality and gender. That does not engender trust.

• Make sure you are part of the solution, not just part of the problem, when coverage shortages or price challenges arise.

• Create an insurance superhero, or at least more positive figures in pop culture.

On this last point, carriers should fight fire with fire. Maybe it’s time for a remake of the vision-impaired “Longstreet,” who uses cool, high-tech gadgets to expose the thousands who file false claims.

On a more serious note, why not sponsor a new drama, “Masters Of Disaster,” about dynamic adjusters who brave the horrors of hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other catastrophes to make insureds whole again?

Or how about backing a weekly reality program—“Insurance SIU”—portraying real-life investigators at work, to show that insurers can actually be the good guys, and might even be fun to watch!

To sum up the challenge ahead for this industry, I’ll leave you with an anecdote from the fall of 2007, shortly before the first time I delivered a version of this presentation.

I had been invited to make a speech on the industry’s image and its impact on the bottom line before a gathering of insurance company financial types. The group sent a stretch limo to pick me up at the airport and take me to the exclusive Boca Raton Resort & Club, where the meeting was being held.

The driver, after asking why I was in town and hearing about my talk, lamented how “insurance is ruining my life” by sending the price of coverage skyrocketing, or pulling out of the state. He complained bitterly that no insurer had ever taken the time to explain to him—individually or through advertising—why policies cost so much, or why it took carriers so long to pay his claims after a storm.

“You guys don’t look like you’re doing too badly,” he frowned, as he helped me out of the limo in front of the luxurious hotel. “Tell your insurance pals we need affordable coverage down here.”

This is the perception carriers are up against, and perception is reality when it comes to dealing with the fallout politically. People vaguely understand insurance isn’t cost-free but are convinced carriers are flush with cash that is rightfully theirs. Claims are never paid quickly enough, and prices are always too high.

Countering such a negative public mindset is a serious problem. The question is, can insurers rise to that challenge?

I believe they can! What do you think?

© Copyright 2009 National Underwriter Property & Casualty. A Summit Business Media publication. All Rights Reserved.

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