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Insurers Need to Brush Up on Media Relations.

OAKLAND, CALIF. -- The insurance industry is missing a lot of opportunities for coverage because its public relations arm is not aggressive enough in its approach to the media. That was the message delivered to the 6th annual Claims Conference of Northern California by someone who ought to know: Tom Vacar, KTVU News consumer editor, attorney, former automotive consumer affairs director and former member of Nader's Raiders.

"Your companies should have specific goals," he stressed, "especially in the case of emergencies." He said goals are also needed for both long-term and short-term events. "When I talk about goals," he said, "I'm talking about specifically how to get information out to the media."

In preparing for worst-case situations, like major disasters, Vacar suggested listing the obvious. "The most important thing is how are we going to service our clients," he said. He also believes companies should consider not so obvious situations that could adversely affect the company's public image.

"One thing you should consider is how to get your own message out," he told the CCNC, and this can be done by creating an ongoing exposure environment. "Make friends with the media," he added. He also suggested companies be prepared to deal at an important level with inquiries from the media, usually resulting from an emergency situation. They should develop collateral information to take advantage of both breaking stories and on-going exposure opportunities.

He said the type of medium -- television, radio, print -- should be considered, as well as the audiences -- reporters, specific, target or the typical citizen/consumer/voter. "Terms of art" should be avoided, he said, urging the use of plain language and the painting of pictures with words in company communications with the media.

When it comes to who talks to the media, Vacar listed public relations people, policy makers and in-house experts. "Public relations people are wonderful if they actually know what's going on in this area," he said. "The disadvantage is if the public affairs person talks the party line." Regarding policy markers, as a general rule, he said, "The person who makes the policy should take the heat." Never avoid the in-house expert, he recommended, adding, "Let them talk."

It is important to know both the format and news philosophies of the various media, as well as the organizational chart of each, Vacar said. Managing editors and assignment editors are usually the best contacts for obtaining coverage. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are the best weekdays to break a story, because on Monday and Friday there is a lot of recapping. He also suggested considering weekends, "because nothing is going on." When holding a conference, consider the time of day, as well, giving some leeway to meet news deadlines. If a news conference is scheduled and a big story breaks, cancel or reschedule the conference, he advised.

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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gillmeister, Ron
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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