BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Badly-timed blunders damage Equitable Life

Equitable Life has faced one of the toughest PR challenges in its

239-year history since news broke last month that it would slash

policyholders funds by 16 per cent.

The chairman of the Equitable Member Action Group (EMAG), Paul

Braithwaite, this week launched a ferocious attack on the company's PR


Braithwaite said the handling of the pensions cut was 'incredibly

amateur', adding: 'It's a textbook study of how not to handle

communications. There may be a rationale for what the society's board

has decided to do, but this has not been communicated.'

The reputation damage has been compounded by news this week that two

previous Equitable chiefs Alan Nash and Chris Headdon - who stepped down

when the group plunged into crisis - will each receive pensions worth

more than £90,000 a year.

The firm, which was attacked by both the media and policyholders during

the July debacle, made matters worse with a series of comms mishaps.

First, bad timing meant that the newly-formed entity Halifax Equitable -

created by Halifax's £1bn takeover of the then troubled mutual -

issued its initial customer mailshot on the same morning as announcing

the 16 per cent cut to with-profits policies.

Despite Halifax Equitable MD Keith Abercrombie's efforts to make amends

(he is reportedly sending out 500,000 letters of apology to angry

customers), the blunder has not gone down well.

EMAG was further angered by the firm's announcements to media and

policyholders, which wrongly implied there would only be cuts in

terminal bonuses.

Equitable has in-house and external PR in place, with The Maitland

Consultancy adding crisis support to senior PR manager Alistair Dunbar,

who refused to comment.

Meanwhile, EMAG is proactively dealing with the media and getting the

messages it wants across, some would say very successfully.

Journalists appear less critical than EMAG of Equitable's PR approach.

One City reporter said the PROs had been 'helpful', but stressed that no

matter how good the PR was, there is still suspicion in the industry:

'We feel we've been duped by them, press and policyholders'.

While Equitable continues to fight the immediate battle, the real

challenge will come in rebuilding the reputation of the damaged brand.

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