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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

In the hot seat: Simon Carne

Simon, how did you first get caught up in the media side of the profession?
I enjoy communicating especially the written word. Those people in the profession who knew this about me looked in my direction a couple of years ago when it was time to appoint a new chairman of MERC, and asked me to take it on.

Does your working life also involve communications?
A lot of it, yes. Much of the work that I do involves presenting economic and financial arguments to lawyers and regulators. For example, presenting expert evidence to a judge on allegedly negligent behaviour or drafting guidelines on anti-competitive behaviour for one of the economic regulators.

Do you enjoy that?
The thrill of writing really grew when I realised that I could write about things I was interested in and do so in a way which made them comprehensible to a much wider audience. Then it was the challenge of taking something technical and making it interesting, for example explaining in a Financial Times article why Microsoft’s behaviour was anti-competitive at a time when popular perception was that the criticisms were all based on jealousy.

The profession’s most significant recent output seems to be the new version of The Agenda - can you explain how the whole thing started?
It started with a discussion about something as mundane as the form and content of the Institute’s annual report and accounts: were they intended just to report internally, or to give a message externally? Council wanted to have an external message, as well as information to members. Immediately, we realised that meant having two completely different documents, preferably appearing at different times of the year.

What is the target audience for The Agenda?
It’s primarily politicians, press, regulators, captains of industry, and advisers to those groups. The press is an especially important audience because influencing positively the way they think about actuaries will influence the way they write about us.

Actuaries aren’t part of the target group?
One of my personal goals is to change the way actuaries choose to write about themselves and the issues we deal with focus on the key point, not the decimal point so, yes, The Agenda is targeted at actuaries as well. But if we weren’t targeting an external audience, The Agenda wouldn’t exist in the form that it does.

Is the profession intending to carry on with The Agenda as a yearly offering?
I certainly hope so! It’s a long game; we don’t expect one or two issues of The Agenda suddenly to change the way everybody thinks about actuaries. Although some of the feedback suggests that we may have succeeded more than we had dared hope. But the decision to keep going is one for the profession’s management committee (FIMC).

What reactions have you been getting?
We’ve had positive remarks from a number of journalists some spontaneous and some because we asked and from regulators, politicians, and others. They tend to suggest that we’re hitting the right button. When a previously outspoken critic of the profession writes, ‘You managed to achieve punchy and interesting views from people who are used to expressing themselves at much greater length’, I know he’s impressed, at the same time as telling us what he expects from actuaries in future.

What about comments from actuaries?

A number of actuaries are quick to tell us when they disagree with some of the content. But that’s OK. I certainly don’t agree with all of the content myself. As editor, it’s my job to put out a good journal, not to censor people’s views.

What else is the profession doing at the moment on the PR front?
The fundamental goal of external relations activity over the past two years essentially since Caroline Instance became chief executive has been to increase the profession’s influence where it matters, both as a professional body (the Faculty and Institute) and as actuaries with 10,000 or more individual voices. We see increasing the profession’s influence as more important than increasing the number of times the word ‘actuary’ appears in the press.

Are you saying it isn’t important for us to get publicity, so that people will know more about us and what we do?
If it was a straight choice between the profession having influence without being widely recognised or being well recognised without people giving us respect, I know which way I’d vote. But, fortunately, that isn’t the choice. If we increase our influence, people will talk about us and write about us more. But going the other way around isn’t likely to work. Simply getting written about doesn’t make people pay attention to what we say.

I suppose MERC’s job isn’t particularly easy at a time when pension funds have been falling into deficit and with-profits policies have been disappointing so many policyholders.

If you look at how often the serious papers quote the profession, compared with the NAPF, Opra, or the Consumers’ Association on these sorts of issues, I think you’d have to conclude that, despite the sniping we get in the press from time to time, the core belief is that actuaries are the people to turn to not turn against right now. I don’t think you can say that about auditors in the post-Enron, post-WorldCom world.

And how do you see the way actuaries are mentioned in the press at such times? Do you think we come across as ‘rounded’ business people or as technicians?
We’d look a lot more rounded and a lot less technical if we weren’t so closely associated with mortality statistics.

Surely part of the profession’s role is to produce and explain such statistics?
Yes it is. But we have a choice not to make a song and dance about it. I’m in a minority of one on this issue. But I think the whole area is a no-win/can’t-win situation for us.

In the real world, people who compile longevity statistics are seen as geeky. That’s bad enough. But then people say we didn’t forecast the improvements accurately, so we have to defend ourselves and we end up getting yet more coverage debating whether we are good or bad at being geeky. How does that help us?

Is that how you see the CMIB?
No, but you really don’t want to get me started on what I think about the name Continuous Mortality Investigation Bureau!

Isn’t this a cop-out? Some would say it’s your job to make the subject seem less ‘geeky’.

Yes, it is. And I said I’m in a minority of one on this, so I have to go along with the majority view. But I look at it this way: Ross can go out with Rachel; he can be the father of her baby. But when he starts talking about dinosaurs, he’s still seen as geeky. You can’t change that.

What would you say to actuaries who don’t know who Ross and Rachel are?
I’d tell them to be grateful that the profession’s communications team does!

How do you see the profession’s PR developing in the future?
Last year, we persuaded our PR adviser, Iain Taylor, to join us as head of communications. The transformation is enormous. By working as a senior member of the team, in-house, we’re not only getting a much more constant flow of good ideas, we are also taking great strides in getting the boards and their executive teams to think about communications much earlier in the process.
How does that help?

The trend in the past has been to come up with some idea a report or an idea that people want to issue as a press statement but too often the idea wasn’t newsworthy to anyone except actuaries. Now, we are starting to get the message across that, if you think you have something newsworthy bubbling up, you need to talk to Iain so that he can explain what’s needed to make it attractive to journalists or to point out that it’s not going to be attractive, before too much effort gets wasted. A key part of Iain’s role is talking to journalists and finding out what’s on their minds.

Would you like to see more actuaries getting up on their hind legs and writing articles in the FT or appearing on the radio or television?

It would be great to see more of it, but it does happen a lot already. There are so many radio programmes, TV programmes, and newspapers that individual actuaries see only a fraction of the output. There was one occasion recently when Peter Tompkins was on BBC speaking about pensions followed by Julian Lowe speaking about the UK’s compensation culture the same radio programme, one right after the other so you could have caught both without moving a muscle.

What would you say to an actuary who wants to get involved in the profession’s PR work?
‘Yes, please.’ To get the most out of it, it’s important for volunteers to have the ability to see the world as others see it and not as actuaries see it (there’s an internal communications committee for people who want to communicate actuary to actuary). What we need most at the moment is not so much people who can communicate; we need people who can spot what needs to be communicated and to whom. But we’d welcome volunteers with either set of skills or both!