Formulating a comprehensive stand on thermal coal and oil sands

The specialty insurer Axis, seeking to publicize its stepped-up efforts on climate-risk mitigation, started its campaign internally and touched all the bases on its way to a coordinated rollout.

I serve as chief communications officer at Axis, a leading specialty insurer and global reinsurer. At Axis we believe that climate-risk mitigation—the risks associated with climate change—is central to both the future of our business and to the quality of life on our planet.

As a carrier that operates in the property and casualty space, we directly face the challenge of the significant increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather. We are attuned to the tremendous toll that extreme weather places on businesses, communities and the people and families who are its victims. We believe that insurers have a unique role to play in addressing the climate change crisis, and that there is a strong and clear business case to be made for addressing this issue. 

Last year, with the support of our board and our CEO, our general counsel launched a formalized steering committee to scale up our company’s corporate citizenship program, with environment as a core program pillar. As a member of the steering committee, I helped launch a cross-functional initiative to evaluate and mitigate our environmental impact, specifically as it relates to our work in the energy sectors.

The initiative included multiple components:

  • Formed cross-functional team—embracing a “one team” approach that was led primarily by legal and communications, we tapped experts from across the organization to form a task force to look at reducing our exposure to and investment in the coal and oil sands sectors and to formulate an implementation plan.
  • Conducted extensive due diligence—we spent close to a full year developing a thorough understanding of the issue and ultimately identified thermal coal and oil sands as being among the gravest environmental threats posed by the energy sector, broadly defined. Our due diligence included stakeholder interviews, analysis of relevant research and studies, and engagement with advocacy groups. We also assessed the financial impact to Axis of reducing our underwriting and investment. 
  • Identified existing best practice policies—we studied existing thermal coal and oil sands policies introduced by other insurers, particularly in Europe, and modeled our own policy to align with best practices suggested by those comparisons. In introducing an oil sands policy, we identified an opportunity to establish Axis as a leader.
  • Launched multi-phased rollout—to help support the program implementation, we conducted a phased communications rollout that included several months of internal promotion, including global town hall updates and a podcast featuring our CEO interviewing our chairman; preliminary outreach to clients, other business partners and investors; the issuance of a public statement announcing our intention to reduce our exposure to coal and fossil fuels; and, finally, the announcement of our formal policy in October. 

With the announcement, Axis was credited by employees, media outlets and advocacy groups for issuing a significant policy to reduce its exposure to and investment in thermal coal and oil sands. In addition, Axis was highlighted as a leader on the oil sands issue and saw its overall score improve materially in the Unfriend Coal scorecard, an annual study issued by a coalition of advocacy groups and NGOs. 

In addition to growing Axis’ position as a credible advocate for mitigating climate risk and addressing the coal and oil sands issues, the campaign helped introduce new internal best practices for an effective cross-functional partnership program.

Joe Cohen is the chief communications officer of Axis, a leader in specialty insurance and global reinsurance with a presence that spans North America, Europe, Latin America, Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Bermuda. He leads the company’s global in-house communications team and guides brand reputation, external communications and internal communications. He is a member of the company’s strategy office, digital transformation office, and corporate citizenship steering committee.


2 Responses to “Formulating a comprehensive stand on thermal coal and oil sands”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    In this excellent “How We Did It” series on success in PR, one of the most impressive success stories may be that of Harold Burson. What has made him one of the greatest-ever PR executives is his collection of successes with the toughest cases.

    PHOSPHATES. When there were massive boycotts of stores that sold detergents with phosphates, when Washington leaders and the media expressed outrage about the effects of phosphates on our environment and health, Harold Burson led the fight FOR phosphates.

    His Washington account chiefs Ken Simendinger and Carl Levin showed America that phosphates got clothes cleaner than substitutes, phosphates were less damaging to washing machines than were substitutes (less “leaching” or gradual washing away of metal parts), and phosphates actually created less pollution than many substitutes!

    Until chemists made phosphates unnecessary, Burson’s team did information that saved the chemical and detergent companies from undue boycotts and lawsuits.

    ARGENTINA. Can you imagine yourself arguing passionately in favor of a military dictatorship which Argentina was? Harold Burson imagined it and did it—admirably!—because before the military dictatorship came to power, Argentina was ruled largely by armed mobs roaming the streets, robbing and raping. But Harold Burson’s PR won America’s support and helped save thousands of Argentine lives.

    OWENS-CORNING. One of the most demanding clients in the history of PR was O-C’s “Susan” whose last name I never heard. Difficult yes but Susan was brilliant, dedicated with almost religious fervor to O-C (Fiberglas) and repeatedly Susan was right!

    So instead of doing the obvious and trying to get Susan fired, Harold Burson assembled so brilliant an account team that even Susan was happy. Fiberglas sales soared.

    COCA-COLA. Burson’s own senior executives grumbled about why he was spending so many hours on Coca-Cola for a lousy $150,000 which was not much even back then. When Coke account chief Barry Holt left Burson-Masteller to head Pepsi International PR, Holt offered Burson $30,000 a month to switch–$360,000 a year (!!) plus plus.

    Said Harold Burson: No.

    That much loyalty could seem almot crazy to some but he felt the top priority in PR is client results, not maximum billings. He was also loyal to his own people and when a very senior B-M exec (with very senior compensation) totally lost his voice perhaps from cancer, he didn’t lose any compensation, not even a dime.

    Harold Burson was not always rolling in money. His first office with
    Bill Marsteller was on the third floor of a New York brownstone and when the lone elevator wasn’t working right (I think it may have started life as a dumbwaiter) you walked up and walked down.

    But if he wasn’t rolling in money, neither was Harold Burson poor. A New York Times headline in March 1984 announced his firm was the “New No. 1 in Public Relations.” Thanks largely to Hrold Burson, his firm was No. 1 not only in billings but in goodness.

    Harold Burson was gentle but his goodness succeeded with the toughest cases.

    Ronaldnlevy says:

    It’s almost amusing that after reading this insurance story three times slowly and with no distractions, I can’t figure out who pays premiums or what has to happen so the company pays benefits.

    I took courses in insurance before getting my Wharton degree in economics and I always got good grades, but Cohen clearly would have done better.

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