One of the things I enjoy about my current job as an investment analyst and commentator is that everyday I learn about new companies. In the process, I meet new public relations people and witness a variety of PR strategies stretching across dozens of business sectors. One company that I’ve come to admire recently in my work is Willis Group, one of the world’s largest insurance brokers.
Willis Group operates in a rather unexciting space, and one that until recently didn’t make many headlines. Unfortunately, Willis Group and its peers have emerged as headline-makers over the past few weeks as New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has taken aim at the insurance industry, launching action against companies involved in kickback schemes and bid rigging. Companies like Marsh & McLennan, AIG and Aon have felt Spitzer’s wrath, and their stocks have suffered as a result. For example, Marsh & McLennan’s stock fell almost 40% in October, wiping out billions of dollars in value for shareholders. I don’t think anyone would say that this is good PR for the company.
While its peers have been battered around, however, Willis Group has been able to maintain its edge. The most important reason why is that Willis Group, unlike the others, has not been in Spitzer’s bull’s-eye. But Willis Group has also beat the trend of plummeting stock prices by launching a proactive PR campaign – and has done so without the help of the media.
Willis Group’s campaign began a week after Spitzer announced a lawsuit against a number of leading insurance companies. Willis was not named in the suit, though it was named in the original investigation and is still being investigated by the Attorney General as far as anyone knows. After seeing its stock knocked down with its rivals’, Willis got proactive by hosting conference calls both for its clients and for investors and analysts. During the calls, the company said it would stop accepting “contingent commissions,” which are the “kickbacks” that the Spitzer investigation focused on. Willis became the first company to announce it would no longer accept these fees and, in doing so, announced a “Bill of Rights” for its clients.
As part of my full-time job, I took some time to listen to Willis Group’s client conference call, and during the call I kept thinking to myself, “These guys understand public relations.” Joseph Plumeri, Chief Executive Officer of Willis Group, was clear and concise on the call, reminding clients that they are the most important facet of his company’s business.
“You’ve given us an opportunity, and we want to, obviously, get more help from you to do a better job for you,” Plumeri told clients. “Our basic principle and guiding philosophy is that we represent our clients. We’re going to do business based on what’s best for you, and we believe that . . . if we do the best for you, we’ll be doing the best job for our shareholders, and the best job for our associates all over the world.” Aside from the client Bill of Rights, the company has set up special phone numbers for clients to call if they have any questions, telling them the move was not “cosmetic” and wouldn’t be used as a means to sell products. Plumeri went one step further on the call, giving out his direct number and email address and urging clients to contact him directly.
Plumeri used plain and simple language on the call, explaining that he holds the company’s associates to a high standard.
“Willis associates are prohibited from accepting any gifts, entertainment or trips from insurers that could create the appearance of a conflict of interest with its clients. I don’t happen to believe that a training session in some Caribbean island under a palm tree is a training session. It doesn’t look good. It’s not right,” Plumeri said.
What Plumeri did – and so many other companies fail to do – is that he spoke directly to his customers and acknowledged their concerns. He showed a keen understanding of how his clients may perceive the company, and he was proactive in offering information about how the company believes it can help its clients.
“The reason you have insurance is that if, god forbid, the assets of your company are impaired, you want to know how they could be replaced. We should be in a position to help you do that quickly. So, the second part of what we’re trying to do is to give you some framework as to when those claims will be paid and thirdly, who do I call? Who do I talk to about the issues and the problems we have? That’s why we have client advocates, and we’re going to do a better job in the company of making sure those client advocates are trained to be able to do the kinds of things that they’ve always done. We think they do a great job. We’re proud of our client advocates, but in the face of all . . . the fear that’s going on in our business, it’s important that you know, and I wanted to tell you on this call, we strive everyday to get better. That’s what business is all about. That’s what you do. You have the jobs you do in your companies, and you do them really well because your companies count on you to protect their assets, which means the company’s going to do better. We have to help you do that,” Plumeri told clients.
In the above section of the call, Plumeri used strong and reassuring language. His message to clients was very simple: we’re here to serve you. The Willis Group chief also smartly told clients that he identifies with the challenges they face in their jobs. This is the type of peace of mind that customers want.
I can’t speak for Willis Group’s clients, but after the call, Willis Group’s stock went up, gaining back a lot of ground lost in the wake of Spitzer’s announcement. The stock rose because many investors, Wall Street analysts and independent analysts like myself felt the company had allayed fears about its underlying business. For me, however, the call told me that the company is committed to its clients, and the question-and-answer portion of the call confirmed that, at the very least, the clients on the call feel comfortable with Willis Group. This, of course, helps back up the thesis that the company’s business is strong in the face of industry-wide changes. This is only a thesis, of course – not an investment opinion.
As I mentioned in the opening, my job has allowed me to familiarize myself with many new companies, a lot of which I’d never heard of before. Willis Group has become one of my favorites to write about because Plumeri has consistently exhibited a strong presence when speaking to the investment community, the media and clients. He stays on message, backs up his comments with both facts and actions, and comes off as reassuring, demanding of his employees, and understanding of the challenges faced by his customers, associates and the industry as a whole.
Strong leadership begins at the top, and part of being a strong leader means understanding PR. Willis Group has shown a keen understanding of PR, “playing” to clients first and allowing this play to trickle down to shareholders and employees. These are the three groups of people the company is most concerned with, and the media then gets the bigger-picture story through this play. (It’s worth noting that BusinessWeek ran a rather glowing profile of Plumeri about six weeks ago).
It would have been very easy for Willis Group simply to have put out a press release and gone on a media blitz. Instead, the company put the ball in its own court and reached out to the people at the top of the real PR food chain. From a PR perspective, Willis Group stepped up to the tee and hit a hole-in-one.
Disclaimer: The author does not hold stock in Willis Group. His employer, which is not associated with PR Fuel or eReleases.com, does write about Willis Group but is not a registered investment advisor, broker/dealer or research analyst/organization. I just wanted to make it clear that I’m praising Willis Group’s PR strategy, not any other facet of the company. I mention stock prices in various articles as a barometer of how public relations efforts – good, bad or non-existent – affect particular companies.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.