We like to think that the media works well with the pension industry, but it’s a relationship based on our money, not on mutual respect. In this article I look at how the media really view pensions, concluding we have few friends, and those we have – we should cherish!
We are used to redefining pensions – increasingly, they’re defined as what a pension is not – the freedom to do what you like with what seems a great deal of money.
But if you thought we had it tough, talk to the media! You may think the media is defined by press passes and newsprint but they’re as old hat as pensions. The media is now a sprawling morass of digital content – most of it generated by a bunch of chancers with as much in common with Fleet Street as a trivial commutation has with a lifetime income!
Words are being replaced by images – “we talk in pictures” said my son to me the other day.
A picture or 1000 words?
The concept of “writing 1000 words” would horrify content managers at Buzz feed and Vice, so if you make it to the end of this article, the chances you are over 25 – young people are not reading more than 250 words at a time. The lessons are obvious, conventional media alienates most youngsters; the pensions media is having to change to cater for a changing audience.
Facts are being replaced by opinion – I know- I am a blogger and inhabit the “post-truth” world. Opinion is free and readily available in social media. The blogger sits in the bully pulpit, invulnerable to criticism. She or he is above traditional value judgements, the medium has become the message. In the post-truth society, the values that underpin the PMI are under threat by this tsunami of content – unregulated unedited and often untrue.
Outreach or navel gazing?
For the pensions professional there are two places to go. Outreach to the popular media or into what’s known as the trade press (which is what you are reading today). The trade press is a relatively benign hang-out where authors quickly become familiar, views are expressed cautiously and rancor virtually unknown, This benign environment is conclusive to learning but not to innovation, it may provide an edited window on social media but it protects gentle readers from the ferocity of public opinion.
By comparison, the financial pages of the popular press and the business sections of sites such as bbc.co.uk cater for a non-specialist audience of those interested in and generally hacked-off by – pensions. A quick search for pensions on most news websites will produce a plethora of dispiriting articles with digital comments reinforcing the view that pensions, if they happen at all, will be paid at a considerably lower rate than savers ever anticipated. The popular press – especially in digital format – demonstrates the challenge facing an industry wishing to restore faith among those it serves.
Small wonder that the Venn diagram representing in one circle “how we see ourselves” and in the other “how others see us”, has a small-to-negligible overlap!
Where overlap occurs is with the few “pension experts” who manage to become spokespeople for the rest of us. Ironically, in creating overlap, these figures are often appropriated by politicians. Ros Altmann became famous in the pages of the Daily Express and Mail because she articulated the concerns of her generation of savers. There are some who see her appropriation into Government as a manifestation of the political maxim “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. Polemicists such as John Ralfe, Alan Higham and our recent pension and shadow pension minister have all learned to use the popular press but they are the exceptions not the rule. The concept of a pension personality- at least in media terms – generally remains an oxymoron!
Personality in pensions?
Nor has “pensions” as a concept – grabbed the imagination of our dramatists. Margaret de Valois, an actuary who has edited the Actuary magazine declared her new year’s ambition in 2013 to see a pensions related storyline in a soap opera. Perhaps fortunately for the sake of entertainment, this has yet to happen. The value of “financial education” has yet to be prioritized, perhaps this for the best.
However, the popular media has great interest in the profits generated by the pensions industry. The PLSA’s autumn conference included a series of videos made by ITN and sponsored by deep-pocketed providers of financial services. At the risk of sounding cynical, we are a lot more interesting as a source of media revenue, than we are for our intrinsic merit!
This seems unlikely to change. The highpoint of media interest over my career was in 2014 when pensions became George Osborne’s rabbit from the hat. It was a poxy rabbit for the media and interest has subsequently subsided. Pension freedoms have been replaced by the possibility of having no pension at all, the lifetime ISA is a pension that dared not speak its name. The financial press has embraced the LISA as a concept as easy to understand as it is to explain.
In a post-truth society, concepts such as “living too long” and “long-term care” have little resonance. The X-factor for Generation x is tax free cash and that can be generated from the inexhaustible equity of our housing stock. Turn on day-time TV and you will have multi-channel opportunities to delight in other people’s property decisions. The attention span which you are demonstrating as we cruise towards 1000 words is sadly not shared by the general public. Indeed, the majority of articles I am asked to contribute are now less than half the length of what you’ve read so far.
Thanks for your attention, I suspect you are still reading because you expect me to finish with a mighty expletive, but you will be disappointed.
The media does not love pensions but it loves the money in pensions. The reason we have a thriving trade press is that there is advertising revenue to be had from our eyeballs. Most journalists who write to us have little ambition to be pension journalists, they are on the way to better things. Those true heroes of the pension paparazzi, graduate to the popular press or the Financial Times (which is popular enough).
They are few and should be cherished!
- The trade press is driven by advertising revenue
- Wider media does not pay such attention or respect to the pension industry
- We should not be beguiled by the media – the public is distrustful of us
- We need to build on our limited successes