Public Relations in Insurance Industry

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There are various definitions of Public Relations. Lee Edwards emphasize that there is no universally agreed definition of PR due to the fact that "PR is used in a huge range of industries and in each one slightly different skills and competencies have emerged among practitioners" (Tench and Yeomans, 2009:4)

Overall we can distinguish between academic and practitioners public relations definitions. For the academic point of view, Harlow offered the next definition: "Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinions; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change; serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools" (Tench and Yeomans, 2009:4). It is a definition that covers most aspects of PR.

On the other side practitioners use PR to substitute terms like corporate communications or organizational communication. During the first World Assembly of Public Relations Associations, in August of 1978 that was held in Mexico City the definition of public relations was developed as "the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programs of action, which will serve both the organization and the public interest." (Tench and Yeomans, 2009:6)

What is insurance?

If a layman needs to be explained what insurance is, it is all about managing risks on behalf of others. One of the most popular forms of insurance, life insurance, the insurance company makes an attempt to manage the death rates of its clients. The insurance company charges premiums from the policyholders and then invests the money in other low risk investments. The money, along with benefits is paid to the policyholder on maturity or to the beneficiaries in case of death of the policyholder. Insurance companies use demographic data to make life estimates of policyholders. Characteristics like age, sex and smoking and drinking habits are taken into consideration to decide on the premium amount. Shorter the life estimate, higher is the premium payable. For other forms of insurance like health, property, automobile etc., the same rule applies.

In the year 1999 in the United States, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act legislated that banks, insurance and brokerage firms and various other types of financial institutions can join together and offer their customers more varied and complete range of services. As a result of this act, especially in the insurance industry, there have been some major mergers and acquisitions. In the past some years, the majority of the liability insurance underwriting in the US insurance industry has been through the bigger firms while these firms have been busy acquiring other smaller insurance firms. (The Industry Handbook: The Insurance Industry)

Why PR:

Insurance companies are not charitable organizations. While managing risk, they also look to make profits. The industry is one of the most competitive in the world with multiple companies vying for a place in the market. It is not uncommon to find new entrants coming in from time to time. To maintain their foothold, existing insurance companies are required to come up with new products very now and then. Insurance companies are also governed by strict rules and legislations and are required to publish their financial results as and when the law states. It is also common knowledge that the insurance industry receives a lot of flak from policyholders, former employees and the media. Hence, the role of public relations in the insurance industry is of utmost importance. Unlike other fields in insurance, PR requires specialization in this field because it is a critical job in the industry.

Social and economic impact of PR:

The social impact of public relations is quite clearly visible. This line of job is totally concerned with communicating with the public and the media. The power exerted by public relations as a socially-embedded profession is a focus for increasing numbers of scholars in the field. Critical approaches to public relations examine the manner in which the profession sustains or generates social inequity and include theoretical critiques of scholarly work by industry frontrunners like Aldoory and Pieczka. In addition to these and other works focusing on specific aspects of public relations, there have been broader analyses of public relations and its influence on society and the discussion is still evolving. (Bridgen Liz, Emotional labour and the pursuit of personal branding:  Public relations practitioners' use of social media)

The economic impact of public relations has received less attention that it deserves because it has always been looked upon as a service industry. The economic impact of PR from induced economic output of PR vis-à-vis buyer and seller transactions is completely different from the reliable figures. Till now, the calculation of economic impact of PR was done in the same way as it was done for the advertising industry. Both were considered as capital intensive activities but the fact is that PR is more of a labor intensive activity. In order to calculate the economic impact of PR, a three step process is required -

Identify the number of professionals in the industry.

Estimate their annual CTC.

Adopt an economic multiplier which accounts for the increased productivity delivered by those professionals, as it would seem senseless for an organization to invest resources in activities whose final value is considered equal to or lower than their gross costs. Falconi Toni M. (2006)

Public Relations and the Insurance Industry - Scope

From the findings stated already, it seems quite natural that the insurance industry needs PR specialists. There are many companies that outsource their PR to professional PR firms but there are many more that have an in house team of PR specialists. PR is a specialized job that can only be handled by professionals who have done a specialized course in this field. While a PR professional has the potential to make it big in the insurance industry and earn good money, there are some social and economic contexts that must be cleared right in the beginning.

The social impact of PR is difficult to measure in monetary terms but given the volatile publicity that insurance companies receive, it is vital for them to employ PR professionals who can handle the outside world well. The inner workings of the insurance industry are always under the scanner and speculations are always rife about what happens and what does not happen. It is the job of a PR specialist to handle the public, the lawmakers and the media. The insurance industry, considered by many as a faceless, giant behemoth, needs a human face to show the world. What the world likes to see is a smiling, confident face that can handle the accolades as well as the accusations.

As for the economic impact, the calculations can be done but again, monetary terms matter less in PR. Some people may question the amount paid to PR professionals but the fact remains that these are specialized people who are the face of the industry. Whether it is disseminating information, getting the publicity done or handling the pressure from the people outside the industry, it is the PR professionals who do the work for the insurance industry. As stated above and reiterated, specialization is the key.

Public Relations - What is required and what is expected?

Important requirements for PR professionals:

Public relations is all about interaction and communication of various forms. There are some basic qualities that are required by PR professionals.

Effective communication - Effective communication is a must for PR professionals. One must be able to think on your feet and respond. There is no scope for reaction. It is important to remember that speaking the truth bluntly may not be the best policy in a PR job. One needs to be honest but tactical at the same time. What is important is a strong vocabulary and body language. Assertion is a key and it is important to know where to draw the line. It is important to remember that people out there are ready to pounce and being an extrovert and a charismatic personality is very useful. A PR professional's job is not to alienate people even in the most trying circumstances. If you cannot endear them, at least don't make enemies out of them.

Effective communication in PR means reaching out and touching people of different age groups, different demographics and different social strata. Depending on the PR announcement one is making, the language needs to be fine tuned according to the audience's capability. For example, a group of bachelors would not be interested if the PR professional kept harping on the fact that insurance is for families. They need to be told about savings that could help them in future.

A degree - A professional Bachelors' degree is a must for a PR job. One cannot expect to find a job in PR just because he or she can speak clearly. There are intricacies associated with a PR professional's job and only a professional degree can teach the tricks of the trade. Some people also opt for a Masters' degree in PR and further enhance their knowledge and skill.

Starting from the beginning - One needs to be a go getter to become a PR professional and the learning starts from the college. People usually fritter away time during long vacations. Those who want to make PR a career spend their time doing internships with professional PR firms so that learn the skills needed for this industry. It is common to see future PR professionals getting engaged in college fests and annual events. It is here that the learning starts and it helps massively in one's future career.

Industry knowledge - When someone is applying for a PR job in the insurance industry, a knowledge of the industry is a must have. When appearing for an interview, the incumbent is expected to know about the insurance industry and the role of PR in the industry. As mentioned above, PR is very important in the insurance industry and only those who exhibit adequate knowledge are chosen. There is no honeymoon period even during the interview. The role starts right inside the interview room.

(Gaikwad R. Education PR - Know the Skills and Qualifications That Make a Successful PR Professional.

Singleton A. How Do you Get a Graduate Job in Pr?

Spring D. Pr People - Stand Out From the Crowd.)

Qualities of PR professionals:

As a PR professional, one needs to meet the expectations and demands from both the employer and the audience. A PR professional cannot afford to endear someone and alienate someone else. It is said that it is not possible to make everyone happy and this is precisely the challenge that a PR professional faces. Often there is a dilemma - "should I keep my employer happy or should I keep the press people happy?" Those who manage both sides do well as PR professionals.

Be optimistic - What a company looks in its PR professional is optimism. The situation may be at its worst but the PR professional needs to maintain a steady and professional demeanor and go ahead with the job. A never say die attitude is a must for someone working in the PR department.

Walk the walk and talk the talk - Practicing what one preaches is important in a PR role. It is important to remember that a PR professional is the face of the company and if the company does not follow what it states, the PR person faces the music. As a PR professional, it is important to be clear about everything, policies and practices, before facing the world outside and communicating.

Be assertive and extrovert - PR is such a job that one cannot afford not to be assertive and extrovert. The former quality allows one to draw the line as and when required while the latter quality helps one maintain good relations with the company as well as the media and the public.

Be honest - Honesty is a very good policy. Blunt truth does not always work in a PR role but dishonesty is a complete no-no. What is required is effective communication skill and the ability to play around with words.

Be helpful - Going that extra mile is a great quality for PR professionals. A helpful attitude always helps, especially when communicating bad news.

Be knowledgeable - The employer will expect its PR professionals to have knowledge about, well, almost everything. Knowledge about current affairs and global news is a must. One never knows which question to expect during a press conference. Even if the PR professional is not aware of some or the other topic, the communication has to be tactful.

(Henderson J. Ten, Essential Qualities for Success as a Freelance PR Consultant.)

Meeting the demands:

What the employer demands from its PR professional is a lot of tact and inter-personal skills. The PR person communicates all types of news and a professional demeanor along with a pleasing personality is what the employer expects. As for the outside world, a PR person is expected to be honest and open and an affable person. When someone has these qualities along with a professional degree, a PR job is tailor-made for that person.

As Bill Prickett of APR says that during meltdown of US economy when unemployment is out of control it is only the profession public relation experts and executives who would be able to provide the much-needed expertise and support in critical business areas like

Encourage the employees

Employ constant, consistent communication

Embody the conscience"

(VandeVrede L., A bad economy demands great PR)

PR: When and why is it used?

Public relations covers many areas, but there are three important fields where public relations is really important.

Financial public relations - The role of PR here is to provide company information to business reporters and analysts. The insurance industry is one of the largest in the world and handles a lot of money, money belonging to the policyholders and money belonging to the shareholders. Like any other industry, companies in the insurance industry need to publish their financial results at times specified. A PR professional is often given the job of making the financial announcements and handle questions from the audience.

Product public relations - PR here is used as an alternative to advertising. This area mainly covers publicity for new products and services. Unlike advertisements, the role of the PR professionals is not to come into the limelight. A PR person's job is to make the announcement and handle the questions from the audience. Publicity and branding are important criteria in this part of a PR professional's job. Insurance companies often need to come up with new products because of the intense competition in the market. Before the advertisements blitz the media world, the PR team makes a quiet entry and makes the announcement to those who matter.

Crisis public relations - This is one of the most challenging areas in PR. This area covers the response to any negative publicity that the company faces. Insurance industry as a whole receives a lot of negative publicity from people who are not associated with the industry. There are lawsuits filed almost every day and the press tends to highlight even minor issues. The job of a PR professional is to act as a cushion and blunt all these attacks.

As stated by Bob Kelly, a former DPR of Coca Cola and a PR expert public relations "...indeed packs a punch, but only when it's based on a solid foundation." According to him it is the very fundamental premise of PR. He says as generally people act on their own observation of the facts and behaves accordingly in different situations one can handle the situation on the basis of the perception. It is therefore very important for the PR executives to create, modify or strengthen the clients' opinion by reaching, convincing and moving-to-desired-action in a way that helps the organization in achieving its goal. According to Kelly this ensures that "… the public relations mission is accomplished." (Kelly Robert A. Why PR Packs a Punch.)

PR: Key Tactics

When it comes to PR in the insurance industry, there are some key tactical areas one needs to focus on. Insurance as a product is quite complex for the layman. As a PR professional, one will find different types of people in the audience. Some people will be absolutely ignorant and others will have varying degrees of knowledge about the industry. As a PR person, it is important to be able to reach out and address all the different people in the audience. This is where the skill comes into the picture.

The goals of the PR campaign must be identified in advance. Setting a goal may sound a little tough when one is fresh in the insurance PR job but gradually, the idea will set in. When the goal is planned in advance, it makes life much easier. The PR person can then keep the goal in mind and work towards achieving it. All the paths to the goal will gradually fall in place and the entire process will be smooth.

The second tactic is to totally understand the objectives of the PR campaign. Before one faces the audience, absolute knowledge of the topic and associated ideas should be well within one's grasp. From the venue to the audience to the speech - everything needs to be planned well in advance. Invitations need to be sent out and the press release has to be marketed. This is when a PR professional is supposed to have done a good job.

The message that is sent to the public, lawmakers and the media must be clear and concise. It is important to remember that a PR person's job is not to hog the limelight. The PR person should ideally deliver the message, answer questions and then gradually fade away. If the PR campaign is about disseminating the financial information of the company, the finance people can then take over. If it is about declaring a new product or service, the advertisements should do the follow up. If it is about communicating some bad news or handling some negative publicity about the company, the lawyers should take over. What the PR person needs to do is present facts and data honestly and ensure that the audience is not alienated.

There are some innovative PR persons who dwell into the social fields that earn a name for the company. It is very common to see insurance companies partner not for profit and charitable organizations to take up social causes. The job of the PR professional is to advertise and publicize any such campaign and put the insurance company in a positive light. As has been mentioned again and again, insurance companies are often held in negative light and it is important to highlight the good deeds as much as possible.

Of course, being in PR and having a good contact list always pays. If a PR person has good media relations, it works wonders for the insurance company. PR professionals are often invited to participate in TV debate shows and are asked to write columns in newspapers and magazines. Through these channels, PR professionals can publicize their company. The insurance company on the other hand gets free publicity without spending a dime.

Social and ethical implications of PR in the insurance industry

Customer relationship management - Customers of insurance companies are spoilt for riches. There are simply too many options to choose from. And it is common knowledge that retaining customers is any day less expensive than acquiring customers. While it is important for insurance companies to acquire new customers, much more important is retaining existing customers. It is the existing customers that give new business either by buying new policies or by referring others to the insurance company. A PR professional's job is to keep customers happy. There are many ideas about how this can be achieved. What is absolutely important is connecting with customers. Whether it is about disseminating information or bad news, a PR person has to connect to customers in such a way that they actually feel proud to be associated with the organization in good times and feel accountable and empathetic during bad times.

Promotion - One of the key social implications of insurance PR is marketing and advertisement. Insurance companies today engage in various social activities by partnering with charitable organizations. The PR person must ensure that any such activity is publicized. A social cause attracts more attention than some glitzy ad that showcases a new product or service. Through positive visibility, insurance companies get the required attention and are put in a positive light by the public. There are some critics who continue to raise their brows and comment that all the social work is a gimmick. But the majority of the public tends to think high of any insurance company when they see the company associated with some form of social cause.

Ethics - Any company that is ethical tends to do well. Contrary to what some part of the outside world thinks, insurance companies don't earn their bread by cheating policyholders. There have been some instances over the years where people have felt cheated but those cases are a flash in the pan. Most insurance companies have their policies in place and they try their level best to help people by staying within the policies. Insurance companies have a profit motive in mind. They earn their bread by giving service to people and taking risks on their behalf. It would be unfair to brand them as anything but honest. As a PR person, it is vitally important to project this image of the company. And to achieve this, the PR person needs to be ethical himself or herself.

PR codes of ethics -

Codes of ethics may be established by employers or by professional organizations. There are various codes of ethics but "adoption of a code of ethics does not automatically bring morality to a calling. Generally, having a code reflects a sincere desire to raise standards of ethical practice and to provide criteria to guide and judge individual behavior" (Cutlip and Center's, 2009:152).

Ethical Public Relations is not an Oxymoron

The company's conscience most often determines the role of the PR desk. It is a very important job albeit not the most popular one. (Van Hook Steven R. Ethical Public Relations: Not an Oxymoron)

Praise of Secrecy

Peter O'Malley asks us to stop the deception that is completely muddle headed. When it comes to honesty, truth, integrity and accuracy, this is not PR ethics are grounded. (O'Malley P. In Praise of Secrecy)

PR Disasters - The Truth

Gerry McCusker says that public relations jobs these days just perpetuate PR disasters while earlier on, public relations professionals were supposed to fix them. (McCusker G. The Truth About PR Disasters)

It is also said that the prevailing state of ethics in PR practice depends greatly on codes of ethics practiced by leading professional PR associations. One can voluntarily join these associations or groups to practice this concept of ethical public relations. Here you need to abide by a code of conduct that may include a set of forbidden activities and some ethical principles. (Bowen Shannon A. Ethics and Public Relations.)

Summary:

One cannot deny the importance of Public Relation today. With new industries coming up everyday this specialized field is evolving at a fast rate. As PR executives in an insurance company you will be facing government organizations and personnel, nonprofit or nongovernment organizations, educational institutions, athletic teams, industries, corporations, entertainment companies, and even nations. So, under the broader umbrella of the term PR you may have to work as a publicist, analyst, media specialist, as well as communications specialist.

The insurance industry has always needed PR professionals ever since PR as a profession came into being. The insurance industry has the tendency to stay in the limelight for right as well as wrong reasons. Whether it is about garnering positive publicity or dousing negative publicity, PR professionals, over the years, have been the face of the insurance industry and handled the general public, lawmakers and the media. PR is the human face of the insurance industry and it is the PR professionals that act as customer service representatives, corporate communication specialists and media sources.

Data shows that the demand for the number of PR professionals in the insurance industry is still higher than the supply. For fresh graduates who earn their degree in PR, there is immense opportunity in this industry. This is one profession that needs specialists and ordinary graduates are not really wanted in the PR field. Very few people choose PR as their discipline and fewer still are really able to make it big. Those who are smart and suave, have excellent communication skills, have great contacts with the outside world are cut out for PR jobs.

If you are someone who has all these qualities and have the ambition to make it big in the insurance PR field, then we wish you all the best. If you have reached this portion of this manual, we hope you now have a fairly good idea about this industry and what you really need to have and need to do.

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