Dan McMillan is the Head of Media Relations at AXA UK. He spoke to PressChoice about how he gets people talking about insurance, whether ChatGPT is set to take his job, what transferrable skills he has brought with him and the important question he asks himself before any Tweet.
AXA is one of our most significant financial brands. It has premiums and other revenues of over €55billion. In its last half-yearly results, it reported an 8% increase in underlying earnings per share. Amid a fast-changing market, rising environmental concerns and an uncertain political outlook – AXA has managed to remain one of the most trusted brands and continues to have a big impact on the media. So how has it done it?
The View From The Press Office
PressChoice: What attracted you to PR, was it always something you wanted to do?
Dan: No, not really. I considered but eventually decided against a career in law because I thought it would be too dry. Instead, after I left university, I got an apprentice job with a local newspaper. I really enjoyed the writing and storytelling aspect of it, but I didn’t live for the by-line. Journalism and PR are two sides of the same coin, so it made sense to explore PR. I ended up working for an agency and the rest is history.
In PR you might not get the glory of having your picture in the newspaper, but I find the breadth of the work really interesting. Especially if you’re working in-house, you’re at the centre of things. Whether it’s promoting the brand, dealing with reputation issues or operational matters you can make a difference in decision-making.
PressChoice: You’ve clearly got great experience across many different areas and companies. You were award-winning as the Head of PR at Vitality, more of a challenger insurance brand at the time. What transferrable lessons did you learn from your time there?
Dan: When I started at Vitality, there was a real desire to keep the in-house team small but be fast-moving and agile.
There was a lot of freedom, which I really enjoyed. It was a “no idea is a bad idea” atmosphere. We focused on being proactive. There was a healthy marketing budget, so we sponsored lots of sports events and athletes. Most people don’t want to talk about insurance, but we leveraged those sponsorships into good PR opportunities – a journalist will usually keep their side of the bargain and mention your campaign if they get to speak to Joe Root. At the same time, Vitality works like AXA in that a lot of sales are made through intermediaries, so we needed to ensure a positive relationship was maintained with brokers. We worked with the trade press so there was a corporate element as well as the fun, going out with sports stars element.
PressChoice: At PressChoice we run a Trust Tracker and have noticed that journalists are increasingly sceptical about companies since the pandemic. Do you think that’s an accurate reflection of the moment and, if so, how do you work around it?
Dan: Insurance, particularly on the personal lines side, is facing a range of challenges: insurance premiums have been going up - mainly because of claims inflation - plus FCA pricing reforms and new Consumer Duty rules have been introduced which, while positive for insurers and customers overall, have meant the industry has had to quickly adapt.
It’s difficult because sometimes journalists don’t acknowledge the nuance, and instead opt to tell a story about “big bad insurers”. A good way of dealing with this is to take a more industry-focused approach. We work with bodies like the Association of British Insurers to make sure that they stick up for the industry and provide the facts to set things straight.
PressChoice: Data is a much bigger part of PR now; how does that influence your work?
Dan: Insurance is a tough sell because it’s a grudge purchase – people don’t want to buy it, they feel compelled to. We therefore have to find other parts of life that insurance connects with. We work with research companies, conducting polls and surveys, to garner that insight. We turn that into press releases and reports, which has been really successful. We’ve recently launched an initiative called Future You will thank you, our first master brand campaign for a while, which is an example of something that’s really aligned with our research and highlights the core purpose of insurance in a consumer-friendly way.
PressChoice: That campaign also taps into social media slang by using the phrase ‘Future You’. What do you think about social media?
Dan: Whenever you’re drafting a piece of media-focused content you need to consider the social media aspect. It’s important that you don’t come back to it and think “I should have written that LinkedIn post”. Social media is very visual so, unlike 20 years ago, snackable content is key – think about the video opportunities or infographics you can pull out of the work to support your message.
Really though, social media is like all media. You need to look at what you’re putting out and ask, who cares? If no one does, then why are you doing it? That doesn’t change if you’re writing a press release, a blog post or a tweet.
PressChoice: How has the cost-of-living crisis affected your general media strategy?
Dan: There’s a real sense that people are going through hard times at the moment and that’s definitely affected our work. There are always issues cropping up, whether it be about bills or insurance premiums, and it’s our job to have a dialogue with journalists and ensure they understand these issues are often nuanced.
It’s also affected how we work proactively. We put out a report last year which looked at how people’s priorities have changed since the cost-of-living crisis. We recognised that journalists were getting a bit tired of the topic in its traditional form, so we took a bit more of a light-hearted approach to the campaign. It worked really well, and we got some great coverage.
PressChoice: You’ve mentioned the influence of the FCA. How do you deal with external influences like that, particularly considering how fast the news cycle runs these days?
Dan: From an internal point of view, it’s about having a really close relationship with both legal and compliance. We also work incredibly closely with public affairs so we can prepare accordingly when there are big regulatory announcements coming up. This enables us to be proactive when an opportunity presents itself or prepare when we need to react to questions.
PressChoice: Are there any big challenges that you foresee for media and the financial services sector in the coming years?
Dan: It would be remiss of me not to talk about AI. It hasn’t entered into my world much yet, but I’ve seen how people have been caught for putting out comments or press releases that have been written by ChatGPT, which is interesting. If you take it to its extreme, there will be AI journalists writing AI-generated content and dealing with AI PR people. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out going forward.
PressChoice: And what do you like to do outside of work?
Dan: I do lots of sport, triathlons in the summer and skiing in the winter. I love films and theatre; I saw Oppenheimer recently and really enjoyed it. I’ve got twin three-year-old girls though, so really, I’ve been watching Frozen on repeat.
PressChoice: And finally, we always like to ask what advice you would give your younger self.
Dan: I’d definitely encourage my younger self to build and expand my network. Get out there and meet people. I still struggle with it a little bit, starting a conversation with people I’ve never met before, but you need to embrace it. I think it’s important for all comms professionals. People often have something really interesting to say but you’ve got to go and speak to them, or you’ll never know.
Dan McMillan is Head of Media Relations at AXA UK
Interview and article by Isabel Donaldson – PressChoice writer and researcher