Press eyes evolving pension story

Media outlets are dedicating more coverage to pension and benefits programs as the Social Security debate and company plans draw public interest

Media outlets are dedicating more coverage to pension and benefits programs as the Social Security debate and company plans draw public interest

Social Security continues to be a hot-button issue for pundits and politicians, but in recent months that debate has been augmented by growing discussions over the future of private pensions and benefit programs.

Whether it's airline executives asking for pension relief from Congress or speculation on how healthcare benefits impact the global competitiveness of companies like General Motors, reporters are realizing that there is a growing pensions and benefits story, even if no one's quite sure which way it's heading.

"The pace has really picked up this year, and we're getting a lot more calls on pension stories," says Tracey Young, media relations manager for the American Academy of Actuaries, one of a number of groups that reporters turn to for perspective on pension-related stories. "A lot of reporters will call in after breaking news, such as when United Airlines' pension was taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation [PBGC]."

Types of coverage

Much like many issues in DC that are hot right now, some question whether this increased media attention is warranted.

"It's getting coverage, but I'm not sure it deserves the coverage it's getting," says Mark Ugoretz, president of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act Industry Committee, known inside the Beltway as ERIC. "To a large extent, reporters have been relying too much on releases from the PBGC and the Bush administration, rather than trying to get behind some of their numbers. It's been lazy coverage. Reporters aren't doing their homework."

Leigh Strope, strategic media and special projects coordinator for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, adds, "Most of the focus has been on the horse race - whose plan is being released or what a committee chairman ... is saying. We're still not hearing from the real people, nor are we exploring how people are losing their pensions and the impact that has on a changing work force and society."

Outside of some trade titles, there are few, if any, outlets with reporters dedicated to pensions and benefits. That means coverage is often done by a combination of business and political writers, as well as by personal finance and health reporters.

"These issues are incredibly complex, but I'm finding there are many reporters at newspapers who are very knowledgeable on these subjects," says Deanna Johnson, communications director for the American Benefits Council. "But I would prefer to see more balanced coverage. There are a lot of stories that talk about benefits being offered to workers, but rarely is there an employer voice in there."

Pension and benefits experts often talk about the proverbial three-legged stool of retirement-defined benefit plans; contribution plans, such as a 401(k); and, of course, Social Security. Most private pension and benefit organizations are deliberately staying away from the administration's push for private accounts, but there's no doubt the Social Security debate is having its effect on coverage of other pension and benefit plans.

"It is making people more aware of the differences between defined benefits and defined contribution, and probably heightening their concern over whether they are going to have enough money at retirement to live another 30 years," says Ugoretz.

The spotlight on Social Security is also helping to slowly shift pensions and benefits from a wonkish, DC-based public policy debate to a real-world story impacting workers nationwide.

"Most of our media calls now come from other parts of the US, especially from personal finance columnists," says Young.

Long-term interest

Stephanie Poe, head of US media relations for Mercer Human Resource Consulting, predicts that the increased interest in pensions and benefits will not be a short-term phenomenon.

"It's been a slow and steady increase," she says. "I think a major reason why you see more personal finance reporters [covering the issue] is because more people are concerned about money and their retirement due to the rise of defined contribution plans and the drop in traditional pension plans."

Other factors are contributing, as well, Poe adds, citing the sheer number of baby boomers heading toward retirement age and the stock market plunge early this decade that negatively impacted many 401(k) balances.

"It hit everyone in the wallet," Poe says. "Now everyone is more aware of it, including journalists."

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Pitching... pensions and benefits

  • Many reporters are looking for statistics and experts who can add perspective to the public policy issues surrounding pensions and benefits, but try to provide people on the street with retirement or health concerns to humanize this story

  • There's a huge political component to any story on pensions and benefits, so try to position your client as a nonpartisan source who can add third-party commentary

  • Like Social Security, pensions and benefits are not going away as media topics, so if you have a client that has something to say on these issues, start reaching out to health, personal finance, and other reporters now

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