July 18, 2018 by Michael McKiernan
As Hurricane Harvey careened through Texas earlier this year, destroying neighbourhoods in the coastal city of Houston, another storm followed closely in its wake—this time online.
Before the dust had even settled, homeowners in the state took to Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms to vent their frustrations with the insurers and brokers they blamed for leaving them either unprotected or under-protected from the flood damage the hurricane wrought.
“In situations like that, where a natural disaster has devastated an area, people are vulnerable. They need to have a scapegoat,” says Brad Breininger, a founding partner at Toronto-based brand management agency Zync. “They’re looking for an easy way to lash out, and social media can give that to them.”
The Texan insurance industry wasn’t helped by the timing of the hurricane, which arrived just weeks ahead of the enforcement of House Bill 1774, a new law designed to crack down on frivolous claims. Despite protestations that it would not affect Hurricane Harvey victims, the legislative amendments played into a developing narrative of greedy companies denying coverage, and firmed up insurers as the target of ordinary consumers’ ire.
Luckily for businesses who find themselves at the centre of a social media frenzy, or who want to avoid being sucked into one altogether, Breininger has developed a five-step survival guide to limit reputational damage.
Breininger says the groundwork for an effective social media strategy during catastrophic events starts long before disaster actually strikes. However, he warns that companies who fail to come to terms with the nature of social media are setting themselves up for failure.
“This is not simply another channel for getting information out,” Breininger says. “It’s a two-way conversation where people can say what they think.”
Companies without a strong communication culture can’t simply build one at short notice, and without a strong record in the medium, they can lack credibility among everyday users, he says.
In the lead-up to relatively predictable events such as hurricanes, Breininger says insurers and brokers can bolster their image as advisors and educators online by posting coverage explainers and preparation tips.
“If you’re not doing anything, and only showing up to answer criticism, then your brand equity stands no chance,” he says. “But if you’re constantly online, educating and interacting, then negative news is going to get less traction.”
Daniel Mirkovic, the president and CEO of Vancouver-based Square One Insurance Services, says he understands why some in the insurance business are reticent about getting involved in online conversations they can’t easily control, especially when it’s so easy to stonewall awkward posters by relying on privacy concerns or ignoring the problem altogether.
“There’s a lot that can go wrong, because people are quicker than ever to go online and share their experience,” Mirkovic says.
As an upstart home insurance provider with a focus on online quotes and paperless service, Square One has little option but to embrace social media, but Mirkovic says legacy insurers and brokers would also benefit from getting over their fears and engaging with their customers, even unhappy ones.
“It’s important to handle things properly, and be as transparent as you can be,” Mirkovic adds. “If there are genuine privacy restrictions, you can talk about how claims are generally handled to give your audience more of the full story.”
As anyone who’s ever had an argument knows, things can escalate quickly. But in a disaster situation where one party’s possessions, and possibly even their life, is in jeopardy, public sympathy is only coming down on one side, regardless of who has the better case.
For that reason, Breininger says insurers and brokers need to keep things civil.
“Remember that your entire network is listening and judging,” he says. “Sometimes you have got to just listen, and not get offensive.”
At the same time, Breininger says stock answers can prove troublesome, admitting that companies have a fine line to tread in these situations.
“There’s nothing people hate more than some cold corporate-speak about ‘hearing your frustration’ and ‘doing all we can.’ Keep your responses real and authentic,” he says.
Mirkovic says taking a little break to put himself in the shoes of the customer he’s engaging with keeps things from getting heated, even when he feels provoked.
“When you’re in the industry, you deal with claims day in and day out, but for them, it’s probably their first time. It’s a stressful time, and you have to realize that they’re not really lashing out at you,” he says. “I know we do everything that we possibly can to find coverage for people, and we pay tens of millions of dollars every year in claims, so that helps me stay cool and calm.”
“If you can turn a hater into an advocate, it’s very powerful, because that same passion they attacked you with can be refocused towards improving your reputation.”
At Economical Insurance, Trevor Brick, the company’s director of claims for Western Canada, says the company’s “empathetic” approach to catastrophic events extends to its coverage interpretation, crediting it in part for the company’s emergence from the Fort McMurray wildfire crisis virtually unscathed in terms of social media blowback.
Brick says a “flexible and generous” reading of policies is particularly important because of the concentration of potential claims a disaster brings.
“You want a common approach so that neighbours are adjusted similarly,” he says. “We abide by the spirit of the policy and what it’s intended to cover, rather than the strict letter of the law.”
Even after an initial barrage from one or multiple posters upset with their service, Breininger says it’s still possible to change the tenor of the interaction online.
“You want to move from confrontation to conversation as quickly as possible,” he says, adding that some simple questions can do the trick.
“Why do you think this, and what could we do to make things easier for you?” Breininger suggests asking. “By asking these questions, you can open the lines of communication and move to a more conversational tone.”
Ultimately, he says the aim should be to take the dispute offline, by diverting aggrieved posters to customer service representatives or escalating their concerns for a response from higher up in the company.
“People complain because they’re frustrated. If you can give them someone to talk to and help them find a way to alleviate that, it can make all the difference,” Breininger says. “Often, all they’re looking for is a bit of acknowledgement.”
While angry customers can often have the loudest voice in the room, they don’t always carry the most support.
By endorsing or promoting responses that back up their position, Breininger says insurers and brokers can put a bit of distance between themselves and complainants, and take some of the emotion out of the interaction.
For companies with deeper roots in social media, they may even be able to take a backseat “and see if their followers jump in,” Breininger says.
“Now you’re part of a conversation instead of it being just you fighting with someone,” he adds.
Followers who tell positive stories about insurers and brokers in the wake of catastrophes can also help counteract negative publicity, says Breininger, noting that they’re particularly impactful when they come from former online enemies.
“If you can turn a hater into an advocate, it’s very powerful, because that same passion they attacked you with can be refocused towards improving your reputation,” he says.
And while good news travels slower than bad, according to Brick, there’s never any shortage of heartwarming tales emerging from disaster zones. He says a story he heard about one of the company’s Fort McMurray adjusters mowing the lawn of a policyholder who had yet to return from evacuation stuck with him.
“Small gestures mean so much,” he says. “A lot of our people went above and beyond.”
Once the chaos and passion of a catastrophic event have subsided, it’s time to dive straight back in, Breininger says.
“Don’t let it fall by the wayside. Go back and see how you could have done better. Check in with competitors and people in other industries to see how they dealt with tense situations,” he says. “You can also follow up with posters, and ask how things worked out for them in the end.”
At TW Insurance Brokers, a busy couple of years have given the company plenty of chances to hone its communications skills during a catastrophe. Last year, it wasn’t just TW’s clients who were directly affected, but its employees too, when the Fort McMurray office was evacuated along with the entire city during wildfires.
Gloria Corkum, the firm’s branch operations manager, says a business continuity plan kicked into action, spreading the work across its remaining offices in Alberta and Ontario. She says TW’s Facebook page quickly became a hub for members.
“People are relying on you to stay informed about what’s going on,” Corkum says. “We were able to link them to key information on our website. We were also prepared to play a different role when consumers were not happy with their service, and address those concerns where we could.”
Following the 2016 fires, she says the company decided it should attempt to get more proactive with its communications to customers. That paid off during wildfires that happened this summer, which engulfed parts of B.C. and Alberta.
“As soon as we knew that was unfolding, we pulled our own reports and started mapping areas that might be impacted, instead of waiting for them to be provided to us. Then it’s possible to see how many customers might be affected, and start calling out to them, touching base and reassuring them,” Corkum says. “One customer responded and said when she got to the evacuation centre, she was the only person whose broker had already reached out.”
Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the November 2017 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine
This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.