The media love to report on crime...
... and in the past few years, that's also been true of insurance fraud. The increased emphasis on detecting and prosecuting fraud by insurers and law enforcement led to a nearly 200 percent increase from 1993 to 1998 in the number of articles about insurance fraud that appeared in the nation's newspapers.
The media didn't make that happen by itself. Sources first had to convince them insurance fraud was a story worth covering, then supply the information for the story. More and more insurers and fraud units are discovering the benefits of pitching fraud stories to the media.
At the Coalition, we've been proud to be a part of that effort. But as we learned more about the issue, we realized that there are special problems and circumstances that fraud presents when dealing with the media. For example, where is the line that, if crossed, leads to every investigator's nightmare— a compromised investigation? How do you build trust with a reporter? How do you deal with suspicions of the media within a company or fraud unit and convince the powers that be to cooperate with the media? What messages should the public hear? In addition, a number of people, especially in fraud units, who have the responsibility of dealing with the media on fraud issues don't have a normal media relations background or experience.
The Coalition decided then to sponsor a conference— the first of its kind— to help answer some of those questions and give practical advice to communicators. We invited experts and members of the media to present their insights into this complicated issue and share their experiences. The result is this publication. We think you'll find it useful.
Publicizing fraud successes
Panelists: Dan Johnston, President, Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts; George Regan, Founder and President, Regan Communications; Elio Montenegro, Communications Manager, Allstate Insurance Co.; Denise Prather, Administrator, Florida Division of Insurance Fraud; Dan McLaughlin, Press Secretary, Florida Department of Insurance.
Many people with experience in the fight against fraud recognize that deterrence is as important, if not more so, than prosecutions and convictions. A good conviction, of course, serves as a deterrent, but not if no one knows about it. The organizations represented on this panel believe in keeping the fraud fight in the news at all times.
As a general rule, the attorney general's office, or the U.S. Attorney's office for federal cases, are the ones that handle the release of news relating to indictments and convictions, and a fraud bureau properly does not interfere with those news events. Massachusetts sees their role as one of follow-up, especially when the press doesn't pick up on a particular release. On the other hand, Florida aggressively publicizes arrests. Video plays a key role in each effort.
The number one rule is don't use the video at the wrong time. Many times, case videos are going to be evidence for the prosecution. The bureau will hold that video until there's either a conviction or a plea bargain. Other times, though, they can create videos for use before a case comes about.
A million-dollar fraud scam sells itself. But how do you get the media to pay attention to a $5,000 case? The key to getting publicity is not simply prodding the press for free air time. Rather, it's serving as a valuable resource to the media.
For example, there's the case of Boom-Boom the Clown. Shelley Kirstad, a former school bus driver, had pleaded guilty to one count of workers' compensation fraud in connection with charges she collected benefits while receiving income from jobs as a party entertainer, Boom-Boom the Clown, and as a home health aide. The attorney general's office relied on a news release to communicate the story and made headlines in only one local paper.
Regan Communications gave the story added appeal by reissuing the news release to the media with a twist— footage shot during surveillance of Kirstad performing as Boom-Boom. This time, the result was widespread coverage on Boston's leading television news programs.
But not all cases come with a built-in visual of a Boom-Boom. It's important to consider how to package a story for promotion well in advance of its release. For example, the Lawrenceville, Mass., police department had received numerous complaints from local cab companies that unlicensed cabs were not only stealing their business, but more importantly, creating a serious safety threat by transporting uninsured passengers.
The IFB planned a news conference to announce the arrests as they happened. In preparation, Regan Communications hired its own surveillance teams to videotape the unlicensed cabbies breaking the law. When the news advisory was issued to announce the news conference, the media were told tape would be available. And there's a second key rule: understand the media's needs and accommodate them. Television is a visual medium that requires interesting pictures to help tell a story. When that rule is followed with a creative approach, efforts to promote insurance fraud cases on television can be successful.
For instance, Florida had a problem with a type of scam known as "sliding"— the unwitting purchase of additional coverage the customer doesn't want, didn't ask for and didn't know they had, but they're paying for it. The insurance commissioner, Bill Nelson, wore a recording wire and posed as a customer under his real name. He was taped becoming a "victim" of this scam. The release made television news all over the state, while other undercover audio was available for the courts.
Television stations, particularly with today's 24-hour cable news channels, are highly competitive. That represents an opportunity to shop a story around and look for the station that will give you the best play. Other stations may get somewhat upset, but perhaps the next time they'll be more cooperative.
When you have a major fraud investigation, law enforcement gets very unsettled at the idea that they may spend months to get an investigation done, and they don't want to lose a possible conviction. For that reason, there must be a close working relationship between the public relations people, the investigators and the prosecutors.
It also helps to increase the comfort level if the press office compiles what Dan refers to as a "one-stop shopping" packet for the media, which allows for greater control of the story and the message. The goal is to create a package so complete that the reporter or producer never has to leave his or her desk. The packet is customized by media type and includes clearly and simply written releases, audio tapes for radio stations, video for television stations and easy-to-understand graphic elements to enhance the story.
The Florida press office sends these packets by overnight delivery to 120 media outlets the night before a major case breaks. The press gets the packet early in the morning and can prepare the story using the contents, which includes all the necessary contact information, including the investigators when appropriate.
Remember, the ultimate mission is to educate people. So public relations professionals must be patient and not use a hit-and-run approach to these stories. It may mean working for months, or hiring a video crew or doing whatever else has to be done to get the story told. But you must not look like you're a publicity hound. Many people work in a fraud bureau, and you need to ensure that they feel like they're given credit for their work. You also need to be sensitive to prosecutors and not look like you're trying to out-publicize them, so you must to work closely with them as well.
Here are some things to remember about getting television news coverage:
• Television has to cater to the eyes and the ears and we hope it reaches the brain.
• TV is very fast-paced and very competitive.
• Be creative in your pitch.
• Know how to pitch. Know who the assignment editor is and who the news director is.
• Remember their deadlines. Don't call at 5:06 in the evening pitching a story while they're trying to put out a newscast.
• Be sensitive to their requests. If you plan a news conference, alert the assignment desk early, even a day or two in advance. Work with them. Try to bring them into your confidence.
• Avoid calling a TV station on frivolous items. You only hurt your credibility.
• Give them evidence you know what you are talking about and you have something worthwhile for them.
• Be honest. You may slip one past them, but that will be the last time you'll have the opportunity.
• Make a conscientious effort early in the investigation to get good footage that a station can use.
• Finally, earn the confidence of your "clients," whether you're the inside PR person or working for an outside agency.
Allstate and the print media
The successes that Allstate has had wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for the commitment to getting this message out: they are committed to their customers and they are going to stamp out fraud. The commitment comes from the CEO's office and has resonated throughout the organization. It's particularly important to have the commitment of the special investigation unit.
Allstate earned national coverage when it filed suit against the largest auto insurance fraud ring in the country in Passaic, New Jersey. They didn't just want to go out and make an announcement. They looked at who they were taking the legal action against and quickly realized that it was a predominantly Hispanic ring. That allowed them to ensure that they got the message across in both English and Spanish, so that everyone would understand what the company was doing and why.
In the course of their preparations, Allstate got calls from a number of reporters, including one who had done a lot of homework on the case, and the company recognized that he represented an opportunity. Elio Montenegro flew to New Jersey and began working with Dan Kraut, now with the Bergen Record, to develop a relationship of trust. That trust allowed Elio to begin to share information that would enhance Dan's story.
As Dan developed his story, he was helping Elio get his message out: the company was fighting fraud and was going to put this ring out of business. It also was important that they work together so that on the day of the announcement, Dan had an exclusive. He had what the company wanted to say, but he also said what he wanted to say in his story.
Allstate has since used that formula with other media organizations. As they build trust, it allows them to get their message out to the general public. It also allows them to control the message in a way that they couldn't do if reporters were simply reacting to a press conference.
Working with the press
Panelists: Dan Kraut, Reporter, The (Bergen) Record; Susan Wiggins, Producer, CBS 48 Hours; Michael E. Diegel, Director of Communications, Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.
The words "The press is on the phone" strike fear into the hearts of many. For fraud communicators, this represents the opportunity you want. Crime sells, and the media is eager to hear about your cases.
The network newsmagazine shows such as Dateline and 20/20 are especially good places to pitch your ideas. Again, it's a very competitive atmosphere, not just as network shows seek the best stories, but also among the producers of those shows themselves, all of whom want to get their ideas on the air. You can use that competition to your advantage when deciding which show to pitch, but a smarter move is to offer your ideas to everyone at the same time to see who's the most interested and will give you the best opportunity to tell your story.
One way that Mike uses to offer story ideas on a equitable basis is to type up a pitch letter with several ideas and send it to all the reporters and producers he thinks would be interested in pursuing at least one of the ideas. Occasionally, he'll offer one idea that's a certain reject, just to take advantage of a natural tendency to spike ideas on a knee-jerk basis. At the same time, he assembles all the background material a reporter or producer would need, including sample cases, which he can fax out immediately when someone calls for more information.
Shows such as 20/20 like to tell trend stories. While they prefer to get in on an investigation early, before any arrests are made, they will tell a story in the past tense (unlike CBS's 48 Hours, which will be discussed below). But the trend has to be something new. For instance, one story idea offered a twist on an old scheme, arson for profit. People used a legitimate and horrific crime, hate crimes, as the basis for an arson scheme. By making it look like they were the victims of a hate crime, they deflected suspicion from themselves.
The background material further demonstrated that faked hate crimes for profit were becoming a national problem. That's required if you're going to attract the attention of national media, whether it's television or print media. To the extent that it's possible, be ready to quantify the amount of the crime as well, even if it's just the number of similar cases.
Once you have someone who agrees to do the piece (and that decision can be a long time in coming, so be patient), you must give them an exclusive. Don't try to get two network shows doing the same piece at the same time; you won't get either, and you'll blow your credibility with both. The same holds true with national print media. Don't work with both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal at the same time. You also need to learn who they consider to be their competition, and that's not always obvious. Some national newspapers, for example, consider certain of the weekly print newsmagazines such as Business Week to be competitors.
Obviously, video is what drives the television newsmagazine business. When telling stories of crimes that had happened in the past, remember that often local stations cover these incidents and they keep that video in their archives. In that case, you can refer a network's program to the local affiliate and the network can get that video. It helps to fulfill their needs without anyone going out and actually doing any filming.
Television also needs people to go on the air and make short, concise, deliberate and unambiguous statements about the nature and extent of the problem, as well as how it affects people. There is some acting involved in this. It's a matter of sitting down and walking yourself through what you're going to say, practicing what you're going to say and being able to project it in a way that a producer can use. If you make waffling statements, you're much more likely to end up on the cutting room floor.
You'll get a number of opportunities to think about and to practice what you're saying. Producers will start calling people that you suggest as possible interviewees and interview them on the phone. Unlike the print media, where you assume everything is on the record, nothing is on the record until you go on camera. At first, producers want to get background. They want to know the answers to the questions they have, and from those interviews, they make the decisions about who they're going to put on the air. In other words, they want to know what you're going to say before they bring in a crew to get you on camera.
So you do have an element of control over the story's outcome. You have several opportunities to evaluate what you told the producer in the initial conversations and decide what you really want to say. You have the freedom to rethink what you want to say. It gives you the best opportunity to get your message out in the way that you want it to be understood. Then, if you're doing it right, you're giving them eight-second sound bites, parceling out your message in deliberate stages, so you're more likely to get your message on the air.
Remember, if you're going to pull back and not be as definitive on the air, or decide you don't want to say something that may be a critical element of the story, you have to make that judgment and take the chance that you may end up being cut.
Present tense storytelling
However, 48 Hours approaches stories in a very different way. They like to start as close to the beginning of an investigation as possible and will commit as much time to the story as necessary, even a year or more. Rather than interviewing a lot of different people, 48 Hours' producers prefer to follow one person through the story, telling it as it happens. In that way, they build trust with that person and get as much access as possible.
48 Hours will do a entire hour on the story rather than come in, do some interviews, and air a ten-minute piece. Unlike Dateline or 20/20, they aren't looking for trends, or something that's really unusual. They look for interesting cases that have something slightly unusual, but the key is to provide them with a great character to follow and film.
Another difference is that 48 Hours is willing to work hand-in-hand with your lawyers. They understand that there are some things that they wouldn't be able to film. But they aren't interested in impeding an investigation and won't air a story until after the investigation is over, especially after investing so much time in it. Often, CBS's lawyers are very conservative in what they'll allow on the air, since the last thing that they want is to be sued. Again, it's a matter of openness, honesty and building mutual trust that makes everyone happy with the outcome.
What print needs
Of course, a story that takes an hour of television time can be told in a couple of pages in the newspaper. So while reporters also look for interesting and entertaining stories, they have the ability to go into some depth. One analogy that Dan Kraut used with his editors to sell them on covering a huge auto accident ring story was this: If we had a ring of 2,000 bank robbers and they were hitting banks every day for three years, we would write stories about it. With that pitch, he was able to shed some light on the largest accident ring ever uncovered.
A reporter can get information and keep everyone else safely out of the picture. In many fraud cases, there's a wealth of public documents. For example, Kraut learned that General Accident filed a civil suit against 124 people and went to the courthouse the next day to get a copy of the suit. Then he just went to the police headquarters, pulled up all the accident reports and discovered the patterns. At that point, he could go to prosecutors and insurers for information.
Sometimes you just have to give the reporter that push in the right direction. Other times, s/he gets lucky. Kraut stumbled across a case of four Hispanics smashing into four other Hispanics. The officer sent to the scene discovered the "victims" talking to each other in Spanish, planning who would claim what type of injuries. They didn't know that the officer spoke Spanish. He recorded it all in his accident report, noting that in his opinion the accident was faked.
Kraut learned that there were people out there at all levels— lawyers, investigators, claims people— that wanted the story to get out as well. Often they'll provide a tip about a person he's already looking into; for example, he got a suggestion to investigate a medical clinic owned by an individual he knew to be shady in other areas. As this went on, he started building more contacts, and that was when Elio Montenegro got involved, as described in Chapter One.
When reporters are ready to write a story, they need to know who to talk to and how to find them. There are people within an organization who know a lot about what's going on in these cases, and they are not necessarily the spokespeople. Imagine how frustrating it is if they have documents making all sorts of allegations, then call the insurance company and the spokespeople either don't know what the case is about or won't refer the reporter to someone who does. So if you're looking for any sort of publicity, planning is the key. If you tell a reporter in advance that you're going to file something on such-and-such a date, the reporter will wait for that and considers the tip to be very helpful.
Once you've established a relationship, try to keep it up. Many reporters will give out email addresses, pager numbers and the like. It also helps them to have someone they know they can reach if necessary. But don't make promises you can't keep. Don't put the reporter in the position of telling an editor that they have something big coming, then fail to deliver. If editors do know what's coming, they can assign extra staff and even plan to print additional copies of the paper, but all those resources will be wasted if you don't come through.
There are other helpful things you can do as well. Provide a photograph, such as a lawyer on the courthouse steps heading in to file a suit, or even just a head shot. You also can save the reporter some time by passing on the docket or case number so s/he can walk to the courthouse and get the documents. By simply being helpful and building mutual trust, your stories can go much further and achieve better results.
Coping with the legal department
Panelists: Ross Silverman, Partner, Katten, Muchin, & Zavis; Ed Moran, Assistant Vice President, Allstate Insurance Co.
Attempting to tell your anti-fraud story and reaping the benefits of that publicity can be likened to ice fishing. It's great to get to the right spot and reel in the big fish, but you've got to be careful you don't fall through the ice getting there.
Few would argue that the benefits of publicity include:
• The deterrent effect— letting people who commit fraud know that you're serious about stopping it, and that the crime has consequences.
• It informs the public about the pervasive nature of the problem and assists in gaining their support, which is important when legislators are considering anti-fraud initiatives.
• It helps to create a positive image for the company and the industry, who want to let their policyholders and potential customers know they're doing the right thing by fighting fraud.
• It educates other insurers about how much fraud there is, what tools are available to fight it, and the benefits that can be realized if you are willing to implement those tools.
But you can still fall through the ice. For example, anything that a party to litigation says in the courtroom, or in pleadings filed in court, generally have absolute immunity from any civil defamation or any privacy cause of action. However, if you make the same statements outside the courtroom, you could be sued for defamation.
Some case law goes so far as to say that if you take any pleading from a case and give it to the press, outside of the courthouse, you are making a statement outside of the judicial proceeding. Therefore you have no immunity from a defamation action. It's also worth noting that statements such as "it is alleged", "it's rumored" don't give you protection from a defamation action.
There's also some risk when you bring the press in early in a case. It makes a story easier for them to do, and better for you, but those discussions with the press are subject to discovery in civil litigation, and you should expect that to happen.
So how do you minimize the risk?
• Figure out the story. Three good things to focus on in your specific story are: What people are involved? What activities are involved? How many dollars are involved?
• What are the broader message points? Why should people be interested? Is it because swoop and squat accidents are a safety risk, or is it a pocketbook issue? Use corporate executives or people from other organizations such as the Coalition or the National Insurance Crime Bureau to make the broad points.
• Know who you're working with and deal with someone you trust. Your civil complaint or indictment should tell the story, and you need to take calculated risks about what you or other people are willing to say about the case. If you steer a reporter to the right documents, the reporters are going to get the story.
Once you've decided the message points and the appropriate people to deliver those points, and you think about the risks associated with each of the people that you're thinking about, you're going to be in a position to get all of the benefits of positive media attention while minimizing or eliminating the risk.
Of course, you can take a more aggressive approach. Ed Moran, like Ross a former prosecutor, enjoys referring to himself as a "recovering lawyer," struggling to overcome his ingrained "no" reaction when it comes to dealing with the media.
Ed's mandate from Allstate is to be aggressive. He didn't come from the corporate "no comment" culture, so while it was an opportunity for change, his new challenge also had the potential to do a lot of damage, not only internally but externally. To limit that, Allstate began developing processes to get cases from the investigation stage to the media for publication.
One of the first requirements was to look at all the defense counsel the company had traditionally worked with to determine if they had the skills, interest and energy to do the new things Allstate wanted to do. By and large, they didn't. So Allstate began working with different firms, such as Ross's, and developing new expertise.
When the company identifies a case with media potential, they bring in the lawyers as early as possible to work with the special investigation unit and determine how they're going to conduct the investigation. When it gets to a point where everybody is satisfied that the evidence is as good as it's going to get, Ed asks the lawyers to analyze the facts, exactly what they have seen and the law itself. He encourages them to take calculated risks, possibly into new legal areas, while also looking for cases that give the most bang for the buck.
When he gets the analysis from outside counsel, he turns it over to Allstate's lawyers and asks them to do the same thing. When they're finished, it goes to Ed for the final decision, especially on high-profile cases. One reason he's the decision-maker is because the company's bylaws are set up to provide defense and indemnification for officers of the company, of which Ed is one.
At that point, Allstate's corporate communications people are brought in on the case, get an explanation of the case and are asked for advice on getting the best media play. Ed's name is always on the press releases and he's the one who appears on television, rather than senior management, because, as he says, he's the one in the trenches calling people crooks (he also expects to spend a lot of time on the witness stand because of his role as decision-maker).
Tell the truth
All the plans made for press releases, news conferences and the like are constantly reviewed to make sure the company is not saying things they can't prove. They are concerned about the possibility of getting sued for defamation or slander. In fact, Ed expects to be sued in a counterclaim, but that's a risk the company has accepted.
The key thing is to make sure you're telling the truth. So far, most of Allstate's cases have been plucking the so-called low-hanging fruit, dealing with relatively straightforward and obvious cases of fraud. In most cases, the evidence is overwhelming. Of course, that will change as you get involved with more sophisticated criminals.
In the meantime, this aggressive anti-fraud mentality is part of an overall corporate strategy. Part of the reason for the strategy is that as a public company, Allstate has some different constituencies from mutual companies. They're trying to reach company employees, policyholders, shareholders, investment analysts, the general public, regulators and legislators, prosecutors and crooks with the same anti-fraud messages.
Allstate also measures the effects of filing of these actions and has seen claim counts go down. Occasionally, when Ed credits his anti-fraud activities for the decrease in claims, he's asked for supporting evidence. His counter: Do you have any evidence that anti-fraud efforts and publicity are not the reason claims are down?
Obviously, Allstate cooperates with the media, but the company is careful to disclose only what it can prove in court. In the process, it's important that the media know the rules the company operates under. Ed will turn over just about anything he has if it's not evidence needed for litigation. In one case, the company gave the media access to one of its witnesses. In some cases, they will help the media create video if it's not available, for example, to demonstrate a swoop and squat.
But it's important to know where the line is that the company can't cross in working with the media. So when they select a target, they're not selecting someone they think might be a crook; they choose someone they can prove is a crook.
Allstate also uses a service that tracks clippings and analyses whether they are positive about the company or negative. By and large, anti-fraud stories are judged by the service as being positive toward the company. That information is shared with upper management so they continually see the value of these efforts.
As an insurance company whose business is managing risks, Allstate is careful to manage the risks that go along with publicity. So far, this is a new area for many insurers and there have been few, if any, lawsuits filed as counterclaims resulting from anti-fraud publicity. Like any other corporate decision, it involves careful thought and a cost/benefit analysis. But Ed is confident enough in his cases that he has a standing offer to personally pay the filing fee for anyone suing in a counterclaim. So far, no one's taken him up on it.
Using the internet and its tools
Panelists: Craig Keller, General Manager, MediaLink-Chicago; Michael E. Diegel, Director of Communications, Coalition Against Insurance Fraud
Fast-emerging technologies, especially those concentrating on taking advantage of the World Wide Web, are changing the way people get their news. It also changes the way you can deliver it. You have the capability to bypass traditional media gatekeepers and tell your story directly. Let's first take a look at the most sophisticated (and expensive) ways to use the web. Then we'll discuss creating an effective website on a tight budget.
Streaming video and webcasting are two of the hottest technologies for newsmakers. Both essentially seek to turn the desktop computer into a television. Streaming video is like having a permanently loaded VCR on your web site. Visitors can click on a link and, using a browser plug-in program such as RealPlayer, can watch your video. So if you're producing a video news release or have a taped event, you can digitize the video for your website, where anyone can see it, uncut, just as you produced it, anytime they want.
Your viewers should have a modem of at least 28.8k bits per second, which is a fairly low-tech modem these days. Most computers now come with 56k modems. In offices, many modems are tied into a T-1, T-3, ISDN or DSL line, which gives your web video better quality. The technology's not at broadcast-quality yet, but it's coming closer with higher speed transmissions.
You can do the same thing with an audio tape of your press conferences, interviews or other event. Many companies are available to turn your tapes into a digital format suitable for the web. Just be sure to have links on your site to plug-ins such as RealAudioâ¢, which are distributed free, so visitors who don't have the programs can download them on the spot and listen your recording.
A webcast is a little different from streaming a radio news release or video news release. Say that you're planning a video conference to make an important announcement. In that case, you'll have a crew there already so you can uplink the conference to a satellite for the broadcast. Webcasts allow you to literally stream these announcements over your website as they happen. If you let people know ahead of time that the event's going to be webcast, you can get a quite a large audience. You also can archive the tape for a streaming video so people can watch it on demand, and watch whichever segments of it they want to see.
Some things to think about when planning a webcast:
• Add a webcasting specialist to your camera crew.
• Plan for a 20- to 30-minute webcast; certainly no longer than an hour.
• Is this a confidential webcast on the company's intranet or with password-only access, or is it open to anyone?
• Inform the press so if they can't make your event, they can tune in from their desktops.
• Think about the size of your anticipated audience. Don't underestimate the bandwidth you'll need, but also take care that you don't spend more than necessary.
• Content is king. A 30-minute talking head is boring. Think about ways to break it up, perhaps with slides or other video.
• Test the transmission of your webcast to ensure you're getting the signal out of your venue.
• Promote it in advance and remind people to get the proper plug-ins ahead of time.
• Shoot broadcast quality video.
• Avoid jerky camera movements, quick zoom-ins or zoom-outs. Use slow pans if necessary.
• Check the look of the background for clear, crisp images.
• Track site usage.
• Create a "highlight package" after the event for your website. One way is to link a photo of a speaker directly to his or her portion of the tape.
But you don't have to spend a lot of money to have an effective website and attract media attention. The first thing to remember is this: know your audience. Who are you trying to reach, and with what message? Too often, that gets forgotten in the excitement of new technologies. Your natural instinct is to put everything you can onto the site and hope that somebody will find it and like it. If you're trying to reach media, don't be afraid to contact those you know and ask them what would be helpful to them as they do their jobs.
One consistent mantra is keep your site simple. Make it easy to download, especially for press on deadlines. It's possible to be seduced by the technology, to your detriment.> Back to Top