Sunday, May 27, 2007

Reaching out to the media

Last week I spent three days with the nation's top business journalists and editors. I came away with a few thoughts.

In one seminar I attended, the speaker asked the room of about 100 journalists how many of them had ever owned a business. Less than 10 percent raised their hands. Yes, they cover business, but I'm not sure that, even with many years of watching various industries, and there were many industry-specific experts there from finance to housing, most journalists really understand what it takes day in and day out to run a business successfully. So perhaps it's no surprise when they interview you and either miss the mark or focus on the negative.

What can insurance executives do to ensure better media coverage? There's several things.

Let's start by looking at the recent Greensburg, Kansas tornado. I noticed a Yahoo headline that said "Insurance industry performs well after tornado." Finally, I thought, the industry gets some faint praise. When I clicked on the article, however, go figure: It was written by an insurance industry trade group.

Why isn't local or national media covering how well the industry performs, instead focusing on how certain carriers drop the ball after catastrophes? Even if industry groups and insurance carriers put out press releases to say "Hey, we did a great job here," journalists rarely read press releases. And if they did, they're going to take a jaundiced eye at companies promoting themselves.

What's the answer? The seminar leader said that it is imperative that insurance companies build relationships with journalists before problems arise. That way, when companies want to get their message to the media, whether it's after a disaster or when the company does something good, you can simply pick up the phone and, perhaps, get some favorable coverage for a change.

The speaker at this seminar also emphasized it was important to be forthcoming even if mistakes are made. If your company ends up with a public relations nightmare, wouldn't it be great to be able to pick up the phone, call journalists by name because you've already built relationships, and tell them your side of the story?

Perhaps starting at the local level would help. Why not reach out to your local newspaper and talk with your business journalist? Don't focus on what he or she can do for you; focus on what you can do for them. Perhaps offer to clarify questions they might have when they arise. Maybe they'd visit your company where they see the various departments to learn what an underwriter does or how your claims department works.

Don't expect a reporter to understand your business. The onus is on you to build media relations before you need them. It will pay off.

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