On The Importance of Pension Communication

Lisa Papas, a strategic communications leader who was recently OTPP’s Managing Director of Marketing & Communications, shared a guest comment with me on why communication is more important now than ever:
Many CEO’s and executives are afraid of the media – especially social media. From worrying about saying the wrong thing, to facing tough questions that they’d rather avoid, to lamenting a previous interview that didn’t go quite right. Whatever the reason, many senior leaders avoid the media. They adopt a “play it safe” mentality by declining media interview requests and generally avoiding media engagement, figuring that’s the best way to come out ahead. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As you’re standing still and “playing it safe” your competitors and the rest of the world will move out ahead. If you’re not visible, your brand will suffer. And in some cases, your failure to comment on important and relevant topics will make you appear out of touch and unwilling to listen to what’s really going on.

Your investments are riskier than speaking to a reporter

The pension and investment world has all kinds of associated risks. But you don’t stop investing. Geopolitics, ESG considerations, market fluctuations, shifting capital, increased regulatory environments and disruptive technology, are all factors that require careful consideration. And every day, you and your organization manage those risks. You pick your spots, and you play the market.

Working with the media is no different. If you stop investing in media relationships and media interviews, your return will be zero. You will never differentiate yourself or get out ahead.

“No comment” – Eroding trust

I spent the first half of my career working as a TV news reporter and anchor at CBC in Toronto before moving to the US and working at NBC and FOX news affiliates in Seattle. I was always amazed when people, or companies, responded to a request for an interview with a “no comment.” Nothing makes you sound like you’re hiding something more than responding to a reporter with a “no comment.” (Legal proceedings before the courts are an exception where it’s highly unlikely you could comment publicly before the case is resolved)

If the news is bad, and potentially damaging, wouldn’t you want to have an opportunity to help shape the story? Hiding from it only leaves room for competitors and critics to do the talking for you. There is a definite risk in being absent. Made a mistake? Own it. Fast. And you need to do it authentically without falling back on blanket corporate speak statements such as “We take these allegations seriously….” Studies show that publicly disclosing and acknowledging negative events will increase your credibility and thereby the trust that your customers and stakeholders have in you. If you stay quiet or say “no comment,” you’ll erode that trust.

The upside – Building equity

Just like the markets, your media coverage will fluctuate. Think of it like a bank account. You want to keep adding to your account with positive contributions so that when something negative happens, and there’s a withdrawal, you’re not bankrupt. At one organization where I lead the communications and marketing team, we were able to generate the highest level of positive media coverage the company had seen in three years. We were able to achieve this by doing one key thing – we stopped saying “no comment” whenever possible. That meant working with reporters to provide answers to their questions.

Three tips for leaders:
  • Build a proactive media relations plan – Build relationships with reporters. When you see stories in the news that are relevant to your business, you’ll have an opportunity to pitch reporters with your business story idea. This is how you add positive “deposits” to your bank account. Don’t try to sell reporters stuff, instead focus on building relationships and being open to them coming to you with questions. Reporters need new content daily. When I worked in television news, we called it “feeding the beast” because of the unrelenting need for new information. If you’re a reliable and insightful source of information, reporters will seek your expert opinion. That’s a good thing. And that’s what’s at the core of Pension Pulse. Leo is interested in reporting relevant industry information by talking to important key players. I also personally believe that the best reporters to work with are the ones who are tough but fair because the public trusts their commentary. And trust is at the heart of a good reputation.
  • Create thought leadership – Every company talks internally about wanting to be a thought leader. But thought leaders aren’t born by playing it safe. You can only become a thought leader if you’re willing to speak up and speak out. Pick one or two subjects that you are passionate about and that are relevant to your business. Think about where you’re an expert and have advice to share that others in your industry wouldn’t. Then share your perspective in articles, speeches, and on social media. Say yes to reporters when they call. You’ll also want to develop a content strategy to disseminate your thought leadership. What communications channels are best to send that information to your customers? Your stakeholders? Your employees?
  • Do the right thing – Despite all the best planning, mistakes happen. Sometimes they are major issues or crises that can severely damage your brand and reputation. But hiding behind “no comment” won’t help. The public expects timely leadership communications. When CEOs step up and own their mistakes quickly they are more likely to avert public and shareholder backlash than if they say nothing.
Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty in the current marketplace. But now is not the time to sit idle under the assumption that you are “playing it safe.” As companies evolve and emerge from this period and chart new directions, it’s important to get out ahead with a strong communications strategy. Working with reporters and building relationships is an investment worth making.
I thank Lisa Papas for sharing this with my readers and if you want to contact her for your communication needs, you can do so through LinkedIn here.

Communication is critical to proper pension governance. In fact, everyone worries about asset management and benefits but if communication isn't done right or worse, is non-existent, then you're not doing your job properly.

Let me be extra clear and blunt: world-class pension governance entails a world-class communication strategy and if your pension fails to deliver on that front, you run huge risks and are jeopardizing your brand and that of your beneficiaries and stakeholders.

In short, you simply can't ignore communications, especially in the age of social media.

Ask yourself some very simple questions:
  1. Does your pension have a great, transparent website which is updated regularly?
  2. Does your pension have financial results publicly available and are they easy to find on the website?
  3. Does your pension have a social media presence on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook? Are the posts timely, relevant and interesting?
  4. Does your pension have a dedicated YouTube channel and is it populated with up-to-date and pertinent clips?
  5. Does your pension make an effort to really communicate effectively and on a timely manner regarding plan benefits, asset management, plan funding, and more?
  6. Does your pension communicate with reporters? If not, why not?
The funniest thing for me is when I approach some pension CEO and they get all nervous and get their communications team involved to "vet me" first or when they insist on being part of any conversation I have with their CEO.

Don't get me wrong, sometimes it's useful but the best conversations I have by far are when the CEO and I are getting into a deep conversation on our own and often go "off the record".

Anyway, people have all these negative preconceptions about me until they talk to me and I put them at ease.

Admittedly, I'm not a reporter or communications person, I'm a senior investment and pension analyst who has seen it all and maybe that's what makes them nervous because they can't blow smoke my way, I'll see right through it.

Most of the time, I praise Canada's large pensions but I have no problem calling them out when they do something wrong, like AIMCo's vol blowup fiasco which I stated is a textbook case of how not to handle a crisis.

The fact that Peter Pontikes and David Triska were "let go" prior to Mark Wiseman assuming the Chair of AIMCo's Board (it's now official) sends the wrong message and looks like a classic cover-up/ scapegoating exercise (and a lot of people think this, not just me).

If I was the incoming Chair of AIMCo, I would have insisted nothing happens till I come in and review all the facts and then I would have insisted the Barb Zvan/ KPMG review was made public prior to making changes to personnel.

Transparency and accountability are two core values I firmly believe in, especially at public pensions.

That comes back to what Lisa Papas wrote above, to me, "no comment" sounds like either you are too lazy to respond or have something to hide.

And this day and age, if you don't own your brand, someone else will and you are jeopardizing your organization in every way, including attracting and retaining top talent.

Think about it. Do you want to work at some secretive organization where the CEO and top executives hold everything closely to their chest?

Let me assure you, employees hate secretive CEOs who are calculating their every move and enjoy CEOs who are open, honest and properly communicate with their employees, stakeholders and the public.

Now, it's true, not all CEOs are comfortable with traditional media, let alone social media. I get it but if they hired the right communication team and implemented the right approach to social media, they would see the long-term benefits.

Their employees, members and partners would all be much happier and most importantly, they would own their brand.

And in the age of social media, whether you're a small start-up or a large pension or corporation, it's all about owning your brand and sharing the right message.

Let me end by stating a few more things:
  • I recently went over OMERS 2020 webcast where I got to speak with Blake Hutcheson, the new CEO. Great guy, he's a lot more comfortable with the media than his predecessors and is even comfortable posting on LinkedIn when he feels strongly about an issue.
  • Anyway, I really liked that webcast and told him to continue it and even improve it by maybe including some of the investment leaders to talk about their portfolios. 
  • Other CEOs are equally comfortable speaking to media outlets and sometimes they don't really have much of a choice (like Mark Machin of CPPIB).
  • I personally believe YouTube is underutilized. Even for this blog, I often wish I can conduct my interviews on a podcast or via a webcast that I can post on YouTube as it would save me time and editing. 
  • I like when pensions discuss strategy (IMCO) or have policy papers (HOOPP) and I also like when pensions post stories on their beneficiaries (HOOPP, OMERS, OPTrust) on YouTube as it reminds people working at these pensions that behind every pension, there's a person looking to retire in security and dignity.
  • Some pensions (PSP and BCI) have a "no media engagement policy" which is downright ridiculous and just plain wrong. Sorry, you're managing billions in pension assets, don't be lazy, engage with reporters and pension bloggers (or blogger, lol). They rarely report anything and prefer just covering everything once a year when they release their financial results (again, the lazy approach to owning your brand).
In short, don't fear the media or social media, engage with them and have a sound strategy which isn't just reactive but proactive.

And I don't just want to see LinkedIn posts on how you support women, the BLM movement, the LBGTQ community and think diversity and inclusion are important to a thriving democracy.

To me, that's the bare minimum any organization should do.

Last week, a pension CEO took an hour out of his time to call me. At his request, we had an open and honest conversation on how to improve diversity & inclusion at their pension to attract and retain more women, visible and ethnic minorities, aboriginals and specifically people with disabilities at all levels.

It doesn't matter who I spoke with but the important thing is we had a great discussion where he listened to me and I listened to him.

We both agreed that we don't have all the solutions and there needs to be some hard conversations that take place to really improve diversity & inclusion at all organizations.

But change typically starts at the top and I'm glad this CEO has the foresight to think about tough issues and was kind enough to reach out to me to gain my perspective. I told him: "In all these discussions, empathy is the starting point, you need empathy to appreciate the perspective everyone brings to the table."

Communication is important not just with the media and stakeholders but with all your employees. If you don't take the time to properly communicate with them, and listen to them, then you risk alienating them.

Lastly, since I am on the topic of communication, let me communicate something here because lately I am being contacted by asset managers who want to “chat” with me.

Please note I am not a middleman or prime broker. I couldn't care less about your hedge fund or private equity fund and the truth is my readers even less so. If you want to talk to me about something that will interest my readers, fine, by all means, but I will always prefer people who are generous and take the time to first donate to my blog before contacting me asking me to "chat".

Once again, I thank Lisa Papas for sharing her insights on communication with my readers and if you have anything to add, just email me at LKolivakis@gmail.com.

Below, Jeff Hunt discusses how the changes brought about by digital and social media have impacted public relations. He stresses the importance of engagement with all audiences coupled with creativity in terms of self-published content. Further, organizations must be empathetic listeners to develop successful public relations programs.

I also embedded a great clip where Simon Sinek discusses the importance of empathy and perspective. "The real job of a leader is not being in charge but taken care of those in your charge."