By Jack Bobo
In September of 1996, long time friend Gus Cooper made a presentation about the “wheel of history” to the annual meeting of the Life Communicators Association (LCA). Gus, a past president of the organization when it was called the Life Advertisers Association (LAA), was also a senior officer of New York Life and for many years was in charge of its advertising program.
His presentation was not just another “what goes around comes around” speech. Rather, he chronicled his 50 years of experience in watching the industry evolve and how the message that communicators delivered had to mirror the changes.
In particular, Gus lifted up the rise in professionalism among agents in the aftermath of World War II and at a time when the business was rebuilding its sales force. Company communications supported this effort, thereby increasing the importance of professional designations.
The years 1950-1975 were, as Gus referred to them, “the golden years.” Policy language was simplified, sales literature was made user-friendly, internal communications improved, and communicators worked to make agents better known and accepted within their own communities. Major companies expanded their budgets for advertising ten-fold over the pre-war period.
The individual companies, according to Cooper, gained support in their efforts from the Institute of Life Insurance through its education, public relations and advertising programs. Business boomed and the life insurance business was respected as a premier source of capital formation for the economy of the United States and of the world.
Cooper continued in his presentation: “In June of 1988 came what many have termed the most disastrous decision in the history of life insurance. ACLI [American Council of Life Insurers], for all intents and purposes, abandoned its role in public relations and as the education arm of the insurance business. More than 20 communicators were replaced by attorneys adept at lobbying.”
As a sidelight, it is ironic, in the light of the foregoing, that a later president of the ACLI used to refer to the organizations public relations program as its fire prevention activities and its lobbying section as its fire department to put out developing legislative fires. And yet, the PR activities remained largely dormant for several more years.
Cooper raised the question, “Was it coincidence that life insurance companies soon began to engage in downsizing and outsourcing?” Additionally, he wondered if a lot of the ills that beset our business at the time were a matter of cause and effect as we let our guard down.
But in 1996, Cooper started to take heart as he saw what he termed “the mystical wheel of history” arriving at a hopeful point.
He said, “In my vision of , it seems to be inching toward a return to basics in insurance communications.” The principal reason for his optimism was the formation of the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education, which had taken up the previous mission of the Institute of Life Insurance.
He also reported the number of major companies that had returned to the theme of needs selling.
But that was 1996–almost seven years have passed since Gus Cooper saw such hopeful signs as LIFE, the return of the “religion” of life insurance and a rekindling of public relations activities at the ACLI.
However, the wheel has continued to move and the outlook in 2003 is not very promising. Like many other businesses, we seem to be intent on repeating mistakes of the past with remarkable regularity. Major companies, our leaders, are abandoning the ACLI and still others are pulling back their support of LIFE, which has made so much progress in lifting our image with the public.
I hope we are not heading for another disastrous move like the one in June of 1988, which halted the PR efforts of the ACLI.
Why am I concerned about this? The reasons are manifold and obvious to those who will examine the public mood today.
A recent survey by the consulting firm Accenture Ltd. reveals that a surprising number of Americans feel that it is okay to defraud insurance companies. They feel that the companies are fair game because they believe they are paying too much for insurance.
I also believe the steady drumbeat night after night on TV by high-tech ambulance chasing lawyers also contributes to the negative attitudes the public holds about our business. It doesnt matter that much of their venom is directed toward property and casualty claims, for we have long since realized that in the public mind insurance is insurance.
Much of our business in recent years has been linked to the stock market. So far, policies that have performed below expectations have not been particularly troublesome because of the widespread belief the market would bounce back.
Well, the bear has been around three years now and shows no sign of leaving any time soon, and the troops are getting restless. If ever there was a time when we need to be building good will and confidence in the public–that time is right now. Otherwise, could well grind us into dust as it moves around.
Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, March 10, 2003. Copyright 2003 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.