AFBS hits the mark with its social media policy

Actra Fraternal Benefit Society (AFBS) provides insurance and retirement services to its roughly 17,000 members—performers and screenwriters in English-language film and television and commercials in Canada.

Incorporated in 1975, the not-for-profit, member-owned, federally licensed insurance company first used commercial insurance companies and money managers for its insurance and retirement services. “Certainly, in those days, commercial insurance and financial institutions weren’t much interested in providing financial, retirement or insurance services to self-employed performers,” says Bob Underwood, president and CEO of AFBS. “I think the general thought was that performers and screenwriters were an impecunious lot of ne’er-do-wells without real jobs,” he laughs.

But a year later, AFBS became its own insurer and retirement provider, underwriting and paying claims like any other insurer. Over the years, it expanded its experience in providing insurance to performers and screenwriters to include other arts organizations—such as SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada)—bringing them in as associate (i.e., non-voting) members of AFBS.

While AFBS members may have had their bouts of impecuniousness, they are much further ahead now in their understanding of financial issues and AFBS services. The society has done much in the way of getting information to its members about their claims and investments through social media.

Script Reading

But AFBS members were not too interested in reading anything about insurance and retirement. “Our members are used to reading scripts,” says Underwood. In fact, he estimates that about 30% of AFBS’s mail never even got opened unless it was a cheque.

And costs of printing and mailing out the annual report were getting close to the $250,000-a-year mark, which “seemed like a substantial waste of assets to attempt to deliver content to a community that had no interest in reading it and, in some cases, not even opening it,” he says.

Online reading was not much better. In the early days of AFBS’s web communications, the traffic on the site, according to Underwood, was “somewhere between pathetic and non-existent.” The site would get 200 or 300 hits a month.

Members also weren’t reading their financial statements. Despite mailing them out, posting them online or telling members they could pick them up monthly, nothing worked. “Members had limited interest in anything to do with their retirement account—except when the market went south in 2008,” he says. “Our fund did better than most—I think our capital loss may have been 16% or 17% as opposed to the TSX, which was

With an upcoming annual general meeting in April 2009, AFBS knew it had to deal with this hysteria. “I had people who thought that their retirement savings had just gone in the tank forever,” he says. “It would not be a happy meeting.”

Clip Art

Fortunately, actors are curious and love to watch one another—and they love social media. “They’re media addicts,” says Underwood. “They’ve all got iPhones and iPads, and they have lots of time. That’s how they communicate with one another, with casting agents—it’s part of their gig.”

That’s why Underwood got the AFBS board to approve a budget to create a library of video clips of various members talking about AFBS and its services. “Our web traffic has gone from 100 hits a week to 2,000 a week, and that happened almost instantly,” he says.

“I can call Colin Mochrie [Whose Line Is It Anyway?] or Nicholas Campbell [Da Vinci’s Inquest] because we know them and say, ‘Are you ready for some fun? I want you to come in for an hour. We’ll either do a scripted piece or just get you to riff on a storyline.’”

And, with the money saved from no longer printing and mailing out a full annual report (by law, the society has to produce a “skinnier” version; members must provide a signed release for a digital version), AFBS created an online report, front-ending it with video clips from Underwood, the chief financial officer and the board chair. (Screen gem Gordon Pinsent dropped by in April to film a clip for this year’s report as part of the “What $500 Million Means to You” movie.)

Underwood also contacted Fred Langan, CBC business news editor and AFBS member, and asked him to interview AFBS’s five underlying fund managers. “I want you, in simple terms, to communicate to our members our underlying strategy, the strategy of our fund managers, their expertise, to try to strengthen their knowledge on what we invest in,” Underwood told Langan. Those clips now live on the website.

AFBS solicited and secured email addresses for its members (it got about 80%), which would allow AFBS to use selective push mail to help message members on new video and web content.

“We’re very careful about email blasts,” says Underwood, “because we find if you run over the threshold in terms of an acceptable number of blasts on subjects that are maybe of limited interest, then you’re going to lose them, and if you lose them, you’ve probably lost them forever.”

Social Network

The next logical step was moving to Facebook, Twitter and blogs. The AFBS board was apprehensive about it, and everybody in the organization was terrified, says Underwood. “Insurance said, ‘Please don’t deal with insurance stuff because we have enough problems.’” But Underwood maintained that if AFBS didn’t get on Facebook, it was going to end up there anyway—and not for good reasons.

Underwood then hired a social media analyst. He told her that if there’s a negative story about something AFBS has done, or something people say that AFBS has done, it needs to be diffused—and diffused quickly and professionally.

“It’s tricky, because, although she’s a smart kid, some of these [situations] involve financial things, confidentiality things,” says Underwood. But over the past 18 months, AFBS has built up a level of trust and has done a good job in addressing customer service issues and complaints (e.g., “My drug claim was declined at my pharmacy, and it was totally embarrassing”). “We had some case files that we were able to manage very effectively, that we wouldn’t have been able to do unless we were right on top of them,” he says. “Our customer base is definitely unafraid. Our performers and writers actually own the organization, so they’re kind of like irate shareholders and quite happy to complain vociferously and articulately—and often.”

While Underwood has talked to other organizations about social media, he hasn’t found anybody yet who can tell him that they have executed a very successful program. “People are dipping their toe in the water, but we have raised the level of awareness of who we are and what we do for [our members].”

Q&A: Bob Underwood talks health with AFBS’s benefits coverage

What group benefits coverage does AFBS offer?

We have three levels of insurance benefits: Bronze, Silver and Gold, and members receive coverage based on their level of contributions. Those with higher earnings would probably end up in our top-level class, which is, by any standards, very generous life insurance, accident coverage, short-term disability benefits, extended health and dental programs, and prescription drugs.

We are not-for-profit, which makes us essentially non-taxable. That gives us some financial edge against commercial insurers. And we return all of our surpluses back to members—so we dividend any operating surplus back to members in the form of insurance subsidies, and our subsidies are in the range of 20% to 30% based on AFBS’s financial performance for the previous year. Over the past five years, we’ve distributed more than $10 million in subsidies directly to members.

How do you insure stunt performers?

About four years ago, we recognized a void in providing workers’ comp insurance for film and TV production in Canada. That void was particularly noticeable with respect to stunt performers. Most provincial workers’ comp programs didn’t want to touch them with a barge pole.

We developed our Accident on Set program. That’s been a successful program, but it’s a challenge providing disability benefits for stunt performers—even if they’re really good. They do have accidents—they tear their Achilles and break their backs and burn themselves—but these things are the risk of doing business.

What retirement options do you offer?

Our retirement operation is all RRSPs or registered retirement income funds, for members who hit the magic age of 71. We offer a tax-free savings account to members as well. At the end of December 2012, our funds just peaked over $500 million.

Brooke Smith is managing editor of Benefits Canada.

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