Insurers resort to local channels after Katrina

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Hurricane Katrina's wake, which has displaced an untold number of people and wreaked havoc with the communications infrastructure, has led the nation's insurers to come up with innovative marketing plans to reach their policyholders as the companies look at losses that could reach as high as $35 billion, by some estimates.

Many that dispatched catastrophe teams to the affected area in the days before the storm were, just last week, beginning to inch their way into the devastated communities to deal with customers. Meanwhile, these companies are using corporate Web sites, media outreach and ads to communicate with the victims on how they can claim their losses.

For Allstate, the second-largest home and auto insurer, this involved rapidly adapting a media plan that could reach a harried, frightened, fleeing population in the days before the storm. That actually meant getting away from the broadest medium. "In our catastrophe-response efforts, we avoid using TV," said Jim Tax, senior manager-integrated marketing communications. "We used a newspaper and radio strategy to reach our customers."

Allstate waited until Sept. 9 to begin its return to national TV, which will run throughout the week, and it's breaking a full-page ad in USA Today today. The marketer is also maintaining the local radio and print approach. Mr. Tax said he didn't know whether this would result in an increase in spending.

The disaster has also required on-the-ground innovations, as claims teams navigate the flooded-out, debris-laden areas that are typically without power. Nationwide's teams, for instance, are bringing in portable cellphone towers to help communicate with policyholders. They've also come equipped with GPS systems.

Public relations, too, is playing a significant role.

"We're working with local and national media to deliver actionable information so people can prepare themselves," said Bill Mellander, media manager for Allstate's national-catastrophe team. A host of other insurers and financial institutions used the national media to spread messages about new policies of the deferment of credit-card payments, mortgages and a host of other monthly bills that might not be possible for those who are suddenly homeless and jobless.

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