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Remember Pearl Harbor

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With all the current attention being paid to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor through the movie and, in particular, several fine documentaries, it is, I believe, useful to focus upon the lesson we should have learned from that event. Perhaps as much as anything else, it has given us a study in unpreparedness.

The recent documentaries pointed out that researchers probing the events leading up to Pearl Harbor started out mystified as to why Japan would initiate a war with the United States.

Walter Prang, author of “At Dawn We Slept” and other novels, was told by the Japanese, “We didnt believe you would fight, and would sue for peace in six months.” This would have left all of Asia open to Japanese expansion. Of more relevance to us today is where they got the notion that we wouldnt fight. Among the responses to this query were:

–Despite Europe and Asia being embroiled in war, the U.S. Selective Service Act passed by only one vote.

–U.S. soldiers were on maneuvers in Louisiana with World War I material and were performing drills with wooden guns.

–The U.S. had not fortified the Pacific Islands.

At about the same time, the life insurance industry was under heavy attack. We were criticized for farm foreclosures during the Depression, cuts in dividends, locking up funds that could be used for business expansion and a host of other myths. We were also investigated by the Roosevelt administration and there were demands to nationalize the industry because of the number of people who lost their coverage in the Depression years.

But the industry saw the handwriting on the wall and prepared to fight back. In 1939, men of vision, encouraged by the National Association of Life Underwriters, founded the Institute of Life Insurance. The myths were exposed and our own Pearl Harbor was averted.

Years later, when business was booming, the Institute gradually became underfunded relative to current volumes of business and ultimately, it was disbanded. We let down our guard and we paid dearly for doing so. A classic case of a penny wise and a pound foolish.

More recently, by every measure, the industry was losing the support of the public by the early 90s. We lost market share and we lost lawsuits that should have been pursued more vigorously, but the public was not with us.

Once again, people of vision in field organizations and companies alike rallied to the call for action and created the Life & Health Insurance Foundation for Education (LIFE). Like the Institute of Life Insurance before it, one of the primary purposes of LIFE was to win over public support through education and effective public relations geared to tell the real story of life and health insurance and its importance to families everywhere.

Among other things that LIFE has launched is an adult education series called “Money Matters” and it has already distributed 1,500 seminars. Perhaps of even greater significance is its “next generation program,” which is now in 20,000 high school classes across the country. Its hard for myths and half-truths to abound where there is education to shed light on the real nature of things.

I am told that the downward slope of public opinion has finally been reversed and is starting to climb in our favor. I believe this is a great testimony to the effectiveness of the LIFE program. For years I have heard a persistent cry from the field saying that we should tell “our story” of how our products and services make a difference in the lives of people. The “real life stories” gathered and publicized by LIFE are finally answering that long awaited call to action.

My purpose in writing about LIFE is twofold. First of all, I would hope that we have learned from the past how expensive it is when we let down our guard just to save a few bucks. I believe that LIFE has proved its worth and that the effort needs not just continued funding, but rather, an ever-increasing budget to accomplish its goals.

The Institute of Life Insurance died because its funding did not keep up with the times and it could not meet the challenges expected of it. If you dont feed your cow, you are not going to get any milk. The real lesson of Pearl Harbor is that when you let your guard down, you are likely to get attacked.

And that brings me to my second purpose in writing this. There is never a night that I watch television when I do not see one or more ads run by a predatory law firm making outrageous statements impugning the actions of insurance companies. Property and casualty and health insurance are the usual targets, but the smear affects all of us. I believe the integrity of the insurance industry is under heavy assault by these people and their class-action-prone brethren.

I do not believe that it is practical to return their fire with similar attacks. It might make us feel better but it would accomplish nothing. Rather, a more reasoned approach is the one upon which LIFE has embarked.

Arthur Page, AT&T executive and the acknowledged father of business public relations, speaking at the 1942 annual meeting of the Institute of Life Insurance said, “If the reputation of big business is good enough with the public, no one representing the publicwhether in the press, politics or any other capacity–will be hostile to it.”

Arthur Page was right and we might add to that admonition: poor public relations raises the level of vulnerability. We have ample evidence to support this proposition and, to the extent we ignore it, we are unprepared and the bombs will continue to fall.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, June 29, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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