Standard Life's PR efforts have tainted the market for everyone including the general insurance industry, says Mark Borkowski
' Once again the insurance world has been completely under whelmed by Standard Life's flurry of media activity each side of its AGM.
Given the vulnerability of its dubious position as a breaker of promises, you might have expected a keener hand on the tiller of its publicity management.
Insurance, fundamentally, is about mutual trust, with actuaries calculating what percentage of us, the premium payers, can be trusted to make only honest claims. We in turn trust the premium takers that their insurance houses will honour their policies.
So when the stock market went belly-up and Standard had to renege on its endowment promises, leaving some two million of its long-term customers with shortfalls running to thousands of pounds, it struck at the very heart of the business's reputation.
Standard chairman Sir Brian Stewart, however, obviously has the attention-span of an Alzheimer-prone butterfly; why else would he confess to The Times that endowment mortgages had worked well for a lot of people, 'weren't all bad news' and in fact he was even thinking of bringing them back?
Such insensitivity wins no favours or friends, and although the rebel shareholders failed in their bid to oust existing board members at the subsequent meeting, they certainly gave the management a nasty and well-deserved kick in the pants.
They also provided some rich entertainment where grey tedium usually prevails.
Predictably, and here is its PR problem most clearly defined, Stewart going out on a limb over endowment mortgages policies promptly gave his competitors a chance to disagree with him, and get the coverage they craved, with spokespeople from Norwich Union, Legal & General and the Consumer Association queuing up to pronounce the idea of salvaging this type of mortgage an absurdity.
"I'd be very, very surprised if anyone could use the term 'endowment' on a product again," said Teresa Fitz, from Consumer Association magazine Which?
And the repercussions extend to general insurance intermediaries who, after many years of contemplation, have decided to enter the mortgage protection insurance market. This coincides with the FSA extending its regulatory arm from mortgages to mortgage protection insurance.
Apart from Standard Life, the FSA has had bruising battles with Legal General over endowment mis-selling, and is determined to claim a sizeable scalp in the mortgage industry. Now the mortgage protection market can offer a range of juicy targets.
General insurance intermediaries will now have an uphill battle to persuade mortgage customers that insurance protection is going to deliver the goods, even though their endowment policy probably won't.
While Stewart's pronouncements on endowments will have made life difficult for policyholders, intermediaries and most of the mortgage industry, his world of PR soundbytes is a lot less complicated.
With whatever else the chairman is personally endowed (and, to be fair, he has voluntarily foregone a tidy little £500,000 bonus he was due) he has obviously not grasped the concept that the more complex and impenetrable the matter (banking, insurance, air traffic control, stem-cell research) the simpler the clichés are which prevail and inform public opinion.
Stirring up negative publicity by reminding everyone of a recent disaster falls somewhere between arrogance and lunacy.
The old saying that a loose cannon on the gun deck puts the whole ship at risk was never more apt.
' Mark Borkowski is head of PR agency Borkowski