It is time for communicators to make friends with actuaries
Actuaries and communications teams are not natural bedfellows. Mix these two departments and the result will usually resemble a disco of 13 years olds, eyeing each other from opposite sides of the room. But in order to do a good job over the next few decades, comms practitioners are going to have to get much more comfortable talking about risk. It is time to embrace the actuaries.
Covid-19 has many terrifying facets, not least of which is that we are still working out exactly how to predict and minimise the risks. Our initial, understandable, focus on avoiding the virus left us blind to other dangers: that economic collapse would harm the vulnerable most, that social distancing would damage our mental health, that reducing our trips to healthcare providers might make it harder to fight cancer or even to set broken bones.
As debates rage about how and when to ease lockdown, it is clear that they are rooted in our unease with quantifying risk. Risk is everywhere: to cross the road, to attend school, to use many household cleaning products or take some commonly prescribed drugs, or to have a baby. All of these carry risk but because everyone does them all of the time, we have accepted that level of risk and normalised it. New risks seem much scarier, whether or not the figures show them to be. Consider how many more people are scared of flying than of car crashes.
Constantly recalculating our individual risk profile would be exhausting and impractical – this is one reason we have all felt so tired during lockdown – so we come up with a set of basic rules and expect that society or government will nudge us if something substantial changes. Companies often take a similar approach, waiting until a competitor makes a misstep or a new book or white paper is published before making changes. This style of risk management has a pragmatic ‘just in time’ appeal but is leading to a false perception of comfort among some executives, while others feel a creeping sense that they might have missed something important. Both can be tackled by a rigorous approach to risk.
This need not mean a whole new team or budget line. Not every company needs a Chief Risk Officer. But nearly all executives would benefit from a clear statement of the risks they face. Did covid-19 act as a catalyst for analysis of your supply chain risks? Great – but have you also considered the impact of a new cold war between the US and China? Have you factored climate change into those models? As well as logistical risk are you considering reputation damage from the actions of partners in your supply chain?
Most individuals have a fairly poor understanding of risk. This is for very simple reasons. For a start, individuals simply aren’t aware of the bigger picture. We don’t see every plane crash or covid-19 victim or correctly attribute every harbinger of climate change. Our awareness is further skewed by the press which is run by individuals with their own fixations and flaws. But by starting the process of mapping your risks, by involving a broad cross-section of your company and then asking specialists – such as the blessed actuary – to investigate and quantify further, we can start to better understand what we are facing and allocate a suitable amount of resource to coming up with solutions.
The very best communications practitioners understand that communications is a two way tool kit: we use communications to articulate the purpose and views of our organisation but often Communications Directors are also the conduit by which insight from the outside world reaches into a company or charity. That gives comms professionals great power to identify priorities and risks and to prompt internal reflection and change. If we want to do this efficiently and effectively, we must embrace the actuaries.
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