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One thing is almost certain in most crises: property/casualty insurance companies will be painted as villains. Consumer activists, plaintiffs lawyers and politicians have already started and will increasingly demand that insurance companies step in and “cover” situations that aren’t—and never have been—covered. It’s always happened in the aftermath of natural disasters; now it’s happening amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic devastation it’s inflicting.

Executive Summary

During and after this crisis, engaging in strategic and proactive communications will be key for the P/C insurance industry, according to crisis and reputation management consultant Richard Levick. Carriers cannot afford to sit back and wait for their clients to communicate to them, he says, calling that “the definition of bad crisis hygiene.” Here, he offers communication tips.

Given these stark realities—and the likelihood that it will take many months before the climate improves—how should P/C companies be communicating?

My perspective is that P/C insurance executives have been here before. They know the indispensable role that their industry must play in a crisis. And they know there’s always a disconnect between what people think is insured and what actually is.

Many of them also recognize that P/C companies should be offering customers special policies now to protect them in the event of another pandemic. It would demonstrate the industry’s compassion and foresight, as well as its resolve to work on behalf of its customers’ interests. Even if clients choose not to invest in the special coverage, they’ll know that their P/C companies are thinking long term.

For two decades, I’ve worked with a host of insurance executives, helping their general counsels and communications executives anticipate and navigate all manner of disaster, from wildfires to cyber incidents to assaults on the brand and reputational harm. In my experience, industry strategists and spokespeople get it. They understand what makes P/C insurance unique—and uniquely vulnerable.

Now, I’m helping industry executives address consumer and decision-maker frustration amid the pandemic while safeguarding the industry’s reputation against a backdrop where “insurance” is not perceived to be helping as many organizations as people would like right now.

Industry figures know they are and will continue to be scapegoats. It’s not realistic to think that such sentiments can be eliminated. So, the industry’s goal should be to reduce and mitigate it.

The industry’s current initiatives—offering discounted premiums, relaxing certain billings and enhancing its charitable giving—are essential first steps. They reflect the industry’s need to do something tangible for the community in its time of need. These individual tactics, however, must be part of a larger strategy—one aimed at not only easing the immediate crisis but helping to buttress the industry’s future.

Communication Tips for Carriers

Customers need to hear from carriers during the COVID-19 crisis, according to LEVICK CEO Richard Levick. He offers these tips on how to communicate.

  • Communicate genuinely.
  • Arrange as many one-on-one conversations as possible.
  • Other industry “ambassadors”—agents, brokers, suppliers—need to keep reaching out too.
  • Help insureds focus on the long term—beyond the crisis—to offer hope.
  • Communicate over and over, on every available platform.
  • Keep it short and simple.
  • Offer more than regrets.
  • Cultivate relationships with regulators.
  • Encourage rating agencies to speak.
  • Partner with disease specialists to educate the public about future pandemics.

The key during and after this crisis is for the industry to engage in strategic and proactive communications. Insurance companies cannot afford to sit back and wait for their clients to communicate to them. That’s the definition of bad crisis hygiene.

P/C spokespeople would do well to remember the admonition of the late General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who counseled, “In a crisis, overcommunicate.” Crisis abhors a vacuum. Insurance companies need to err on the side of overcommunicating by stepping into the void with clear, consistent and empathetic communications.

Insurance executives need to communicate genuinely. The best way to do that is by arranging as many one-on-one conversations as possible. Agents, carriers, brokers and suppliers—the industry’s “ambassadors”—need to keep reaching out to clients, prospective clients and stakeholders.

If existing clients are forced to seek out their carriers to find out what’s going on about their business interruption insurance, they’re going to be agitated. Instead, it’s incumbent on industry ambassadors to reach out to clients with messages that extend beyond the current crisis. Remember, people and businesses aren’t sure they’re going to get through this. They’re asking existential questions about the survival of their livelihoods. By getting them to focus on the long term as well as the short, ambassadors will be getting them to think, “There’s hope.”

Every available platform should be tapped, from calls and emails to webinars, Zoom meetings, and online forums and press rooms. It’s about communicating over and over—but keeping it short and simple.

Each message should recognize that customers want to hear more than regrets. Clients will want to see that the company made a sacrifice and shared some empathy. The ambassadors also need to make it plain that they’re actively engaged in the broader effort to come up with real solutions. Ambassadors should emphasize that P/C representatives have been working closely with state regulators and members of Congress to devise solutions and provide relief.

State officials, the industry’s primary regulators, understand the positive impact that insurance has on the local economy. They’re more sympathetic, especially to P/C carriers; they need to be carefully cultivated. They understand that the last thing the industry wants is to be forced to cover claims for which they receive no premiums, then be strapped for cash and unable to cover the big things that insurance has traditionally covered—and been compensated for.

Industry ambassadors can help their elected officials without being partisan, perhaps by issuing joint industry statements, or holding joint press conferences, or agreeing to serve on commissions or task forces.

Ambassadors can also encourage ratings agencies to speak out on the effects of requiring insurers to pay claims for which no premiums have been collected. The tangible offers that carriers are making as they simultaneously advance their public policy and legal arguments form the foundation of an effective crisis management strategy. Simple as it sounds, briefly explaining the difference between insurance and government-funded stimulus efforts or bailouts is as important as it is helpful. When people and companies are desperate for help, it points them in the right direction.

Industry figures know they are and will continue to be scapegoats. It’s not realistic to think that such sentiments can be eliminated. So, the industry’s goal should be to reduce and mitigate it.

There’s an old saw in communications that when you’re explaining, you’re losing. But the industry has at its disposal powerful arguments, strengthened by the willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of policyholders. It’s why suspending cancellations and renewals and offering other customer discounts makes strategic sense for P/C companies. It shows you’re giving something and that your words carry more meaning because you are making a sacrifice too.

It’s the same as lending institutions saying, “We’re not going to kick you out of your house for three months. We’re going to let you be as much as three months behind and maybe more on your mortgage.”

To produce documentation that could be useful in the future, P/C companies would also do well to take steps now in partnership with disease specialists to educate the public about the potential for future epidemics and pandemics.

Down the road, you want to be able to point back at substantial communications efforts so you can say, “Look, for years we’ve raised the alarm and encouraged our customers to buy pandemic policies.” The industry needs to challenge itself by asking, “OK, going forward, not just how do we play catch-up or how do we play whack-a-mole, but how do we go forward with a plan that is good for both our customers and the industry?”

As mentioned earlier, a few years from now the industry may have to deal with some strain or some other coronavirus besides COVID-19. P/C companies should be planning now for the long haul, so that they’re prepared and marketing into it.

Finally, the industry needs to see this crisis as an opportunity to re-examine corporate social responsibility (CSR) and philanthropic activities. Too many CSR priorities were established years ago and may not align with a company’s current strategic needs. Look forward so you can look backward with pride.