SOA sees rewards of taking risk on PR

Through the Society of Actuaries' branding push, an entire profession is now better understood

Through the Society of Actuaries' branding push, an entire profession is now better understood

While not Alaskan crab fishermen, firefighters, or even stunt doubles, actuaries work in a sector that deals with risk every day - studying it, analyzing it, managing it.

The perils certainly differ: globalization, spiraling healthcare costs, and baby-boomer retirement probably don't match up to the high seas or a sky dive. But lately, thousands of US actuaries have felt that as the world gets riskier, businesses and financial consumers need them now more than ever.

Outside of the insurance agencies, however, these same businesses and consumers have overlooked actuaries' skills, choosing other professionals, such as accountants and financial managers for risk advice. Banding together under the Schaumberg, IL-based Society of Actuaries (SOA), the profession's largest trade association, these certified odds-makers took a carefully calculated gamble on PR to help elevate their expert profiles and actually "brand" a profession.

"We recognized the business landscape was changing and we knew actuaries, with their centuries of experience in understanding risk, had a voice," says Lisamarie Lukas, SOA's director of communications. "However, actuaries were clearly misunderstood."

Turning things around required a fresh approach. With the help of GolinHarris and its internal communications arm, Insidedge, the SOA last year launched a multifaceted branding program to bolster the industry's status.

But first, as any good actuary would advise, the campaign required research.

SOA and Golin studies showed that actuaries saw themselves as forecasters offering real-world solutions to complex problems. Business leaders, however, primarily viewed actuaries as insurance company assessors.

After determining the actuaries' actual position in the marketplace, the SOA and Golin aimed to bridge the gap between perception and reality.

"We needed to help the SOA, in essence, tell the story of the actuarial profession - leverage the core practices of the traditional actuary, while also stimulating employers to find new areas for actuarial skills," says Golin VP Trent Frager.

With input from key players in the field, the firm started the SOA's re-branding efforts with a new tagline: "Risk is Opportunity" - designed to alter actuaries' images from second-guessers to financial authorities. The firm created several platforms positioning actuaries as rigorously trained risk professionals with valuable input in the 21st century's changing economic and social needs.

After debuting the revitalized brand at the SOA's annual meeting in October 2006 through a workshop and a poster campaign showing real-life actuaries on the job, the SOA and Golin put forward three programs to reach media and the public.

First came "Actuaries in Action," an initiative to increase the breadth and depth of people representing the profession. For this, the PR partners amassed a database of actuarial stories and case studies, and used those to launch a speaker's bureau that provided actuaries to deliver keynote addresses at business conferences across the country.

The SOA put forth a program it named "Retirement 20/20," introducing actuaries as leaders in the retirement system dialogue, and followed it with an "in-person, desk-side" media tour to offer journalists a newsworthy story about Baby Boomer retirement. "Retirement 20/20" appealed to both trade publications and consumer financial writers, landing a spot in the "Financial Futures" column of Washington Post writer Martha Hamilton.

Lukas maintains, "[The Post] story raised the bar for the campaign."

The association then put the "Risk as Opportunity" tagline in motion by launching a new professional designation, the Chartered Enterprise Risk Analyst (CERA) credential, to inform employers and clients of actuaries' qualifications in handling enterprise risk management, a new field in corporate development. It also conducted a series of media briefings and speeches to encourage actuaries and college students to consider a career in the field.

All this outreach has resulted in important developments within and without the field.

A recent study showed that actuaries were more positive than before about strengthening their "brand" and there have been hundreds of inquiries to the SOA regarding the new CERA credential. Among the public, more than 175 high-profile placements in employer-targeted outlets, including 11 "Retirement 20/20" articles, have fostered a greater understanding of actuarial work.

The focus in 2008 is on building the brand. "Light bulbs are going off in people's heads," Lucas says. "Our phones are ringing."

At a glance

Organization: Society of Actuaries
Executive director: Greg Heidrich
Headquarters: Schaumburg, IL
Revenues: $30 million
PR/marketing budget: $1 million
Key trade titles: Business Insurance, Best's Review, Financial Week, The Wall Street Journal
Marcomms team: Stacy Lin, deputy executive director; Karen Bresson, marketing/branding dir.;
Lisamarie Lukas, director of comms; Susie Ayala, brand manager; Kim McKewon, PR project manager
PR agency: GolinHarris

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