In the span of just three months – one at the end of 2022 and two at the beginning of 2023 – the insurance industry has been at the center of significant crises situations that have played out in the media. While the scenarios cover a broad spectrum of what could go wrong, from each situation emanates one key theme – the value in planning ahead for a potential crisis.
In December, State Farm was the focus of an investigative feature story detailing allegations that the insurer discriminates against black homeowners in claims scenarios. With a human, empathetic approach to its response, State Farm struck exactly the right tone in a situation where the story would have proceeded with or without the company’s input. The response, shrouded in what appears to be sincere embarrassment, may ultimately serve State Farm well if the company continues to resolve the matter while owning any mistakes made.
The Norfolk Southern train derailment on Feb. 3, 2023 and the resulting chemical spill dominated most headlines and broadcast news coverage for most of February. As investigations proceed and claims likely exceed Norfolk Southern’s liability coverage, increased scrutiny will fall on railroad insurance generally and risk management practices in the transportation industry more specifically. In time, insurers will face questions about how the U.S. transports sensitive cargo and the safety measures it mandates of its insureds.
And finally, in late February, North Carolina investment firm founder Greg E. Lindberg again generated headlines when he was charged by a federal grand jury in a $2 billion fraud scheme. According to the indictment, Lindberg and others are accused of improperly taking money for personal use from insurance companies controlled by Lindberg. This news follows a 2020 bribery conviction of Lindberg that was overturned on appeal in 2022. Lindberg has since made several combative statements, issued a press release announcing planned actions by his defense team, and otherwise taken actions to ensure his name remains in the headlines, come what may.
And these are just a few of the more recent, audacious headline makers.
As has been said many times before, the insurance industry has a communications problem. And like so many other industries, the crisis communications capabilities of the insurance industry are lacking.
Countless businesses of all sizes are ill-prepared for crisis situations where they must communicate with multiple stakeholders: investors, board members, employees, vendors, the public at large, industry leaders, etc. Most lack a Crisis Communications Plan. And for those who might have a crisis plan of a sort, those plans are often out of date by many years and/or have never been stress tested. In fact, if you quizzed most senior executives at any number of organizations, they would be hard pressed to verify a Crisis Communications Plan exists for their company, and who is assigned to what roles on the designated crisis team.
Crisis Communications Plans give companies and non-profits a road map to follow, designate team members with clearly defined roles, and provide approved language for a range of scenarios that allow for the type of rapid response required in the current media environment. These plans also empower crisis team members with both formal training that helps them to avoid missteps and with the authority to act in the best interests of the organization within certain parameters. Lacking such a plan, most companies find themselves making it up as they go, which is akin to trying to close the barn doors while the horses are mid-stampede from that same barn. The best you can hope for in that scenario is not to be crushed in the experience.
Like insurance itself, a good Crisis Communications Plan is a hedge against disaster. While it will require an initial investment, the savings such plans provide can be incalculable in a true emergency situation. Some crises result in bet-the-business risks that often can only be resolved if the actions taken are deftly communicated. One need only look at recent bank failures – driven by crises of confidence primarily – to understand how vital quick, thoughtful and fact-driven communication can be in the life of any organization.