Crises spotlight insurance issues

Most people don't think about their insurance until matters become pressing, keeping media attention low. But there are ways to score non-crisis coverage.

Most people don't think about their insurance until matters become pressing, keeping media attention low. But there are ways to score non-crisis coverage.

Unless it's time to write the monthly check to cover your home, car, health, business, or other asset, insurance tends to be one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind categories.

Most people don't think about their policies until they need them, which makes it a challenge to pitch insurance-themed stories to the general-interest press.

Disasters are the one exception to this rule, and insurance is a standard follow-up story as people begin to figure out how to pay for the all the damage.

"Mega-events, such as a hurricane, an earthquake, or 9/11 put added focus on the insurance industry from a couple of angles," explains Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Education Institute. "For one thing, we're a big industry, and we're financially impacted, so there's curiosity about whether we'll be able to pay claims. But as far as the average person goes, many also want to know whether it will make rates go up for businesses, homes, cars, and boats."

That formula is holding true for Hurricane Katrina, though on a much larger scale. "Most disasters tend to play out over a shorter period of time, so you usually quickly see focused stories dealing with how to prepare for the next crisis," says Ted Besesparis, communications VP for the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents. "In a situation like Katrina, your second- and third-day stories have become second- and third-week stories because most reporters were dealing with the immediate situation for a lot longer."

"When a hurricane causes the largest amount of damage of all time, suddenly you're inundated with story possibilities," adds Tom McCoy, editor-in-chief of Rough Notes, the insurance trade monthly. "The economic impact will be substantial and will shake up the industry."

Attracting coverage

While health reporters might write about medical insurance, and real-estate writers might do a story on homeowner rates, most general-interest reporting on insurance is either for a business or personal finance story.

"A personal finance reporter will often circle around to the issue, whether it's life insurance or how to shop for auto insurance," says Hartwig. "The most common coverage deals with what we call market conditions - inquiries about the price of a particular type of insurance and [if it's] going up or down."

Mechell Clark, media relations manager with supplemental insurer Aflac, adds that there are also seasonal opportunities for insurance stories.

"The insurance open-enrollment period is a good time to get stories out there that promote your product, and that generally happens in October," she says. "There are also opportunities to talk about looking at your insurance as part of a New Year's resolution-themed pitch."

"This may sound corny," Hartwig adds, "but every late spring, we put out a release on the special insurance needs associated with a wedding that gets widely picked up. For Valentine's Day, we talk about appropriate insurance for the jewelry you might be giving some girl, and with back to school, we do stories on determining if your kid is covered when he goes off to college."

Clark also cites the benefits of surveys and studies as news hooks, especially for hot-button issues like the escalating price of medical coverage. "They allow us to bring to reporters the concerns many people have about rising healthcare costs, while noting that our products help address those concerns," she says.

Making things clear

Most business and personal finance writers have at least a basic grasp of how the industry works, but, Besesparis says, "What they're not familiar with are the intricacies of how the industry operates."

But Hartwig notes that the more important concern is making sure the general public is getting the latest information in plain English.

"Right now, we're doing a lot of explaining on why floods are not covered under a normal homeowner's policy, and that's why there's a federal National Flood Insurance Program," he adds. "The one thing we stress is that no one who speaks to the media is allowed to talk to them in either extraordinarily technical or condescending terms. We take great care to present our views in a vernacular that anyone can understand."


Pitching... insurance

  • There are very few dedicated insurance beat reporters outside of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and a handful of trade outlets, so make time to educate any interested reporters on the intricacies of the industry
  • Interest in insurance stories tends to peak after disasters, but make sure your media outreach is focused on consumer education and doesn't come across as opportunistic
  • Insurance can be a very complex business, but most people are only interested in their policy's rates and premiums, so make sure that anyone who deals with the media speaks in plain English and addresses those concerns

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