For decades, public pensions flew under the radar of journalists, but those days are gone forever. Today, public pensions face challenges that fascinate reporters, who often fail to understand the complexities involved. In response to this situation, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund created an initiative that helps reporters, editors, and legislators understand how the fund works. These techniques have created a positive change in the way IMRF is portrayed in the press, and they can be used and adapted to help other organizations do the same.
Negative coverage of employee benefits--centering on public pensions--has increased substantially in recent years. The focus has been on pension funding, perceived flaws in public-sector pension plan design, and a growing "pension envy" on the part of taxpayers who feel they are being asked to pay for a retirement benefit all but lost to the private sector. Many public pension systems have been slow to respond, but IMRF has been proactive, using careful planning, thoughtful execution, and deliberate relationship building to educate reporters and editors--and ultimately, their readers, viewers, and listeners--about the benefits of both defined benefit pension plans and IMRF. (1)
Along the way, reporters have often repeated the messages of private-sector business groups that challenge the sustainability of public pensions and of academics who dispute the assumptions pension systems use to calculate costs and funding ratios. For example:
* "Continuing to sound the alarm on local pension funds, Chicago's Civic Federation will release a report Thursday that shows the unfunded liabilities for 10 city and county pension funds grew six-fold from 2000 to 2009." (Jason Grotto, "New Report Details Scope of Public Pension Pitfalls," Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2011)
* "There is a national debate of critical importance that isn't getting media attention ... the discount rate within public pensions ... It has a material impact on a pension's reported funding status." ("Pension debate warrants coverage, QuadCity Times, April 20, 2011)
Wall Street has warned investors of "pension meltdowns," and legislators across the country are reforming their public pension systems.
HOW TO GET STARTED
The IMRF had a positive story to tell and found a way to tell it effectively. The fund receives no funding from the State of Illinois, and unlike any other public pension fund in Illinois, the IMRF Board of Trustees has enforcement authority to collect contributions from the local government that participate in it. As a result, throughout its 70-plus year history, IMRF employers have paid their contributions in full when they are due. At the end of 2011, the fund had $25 billion in assets and was 80 percent funded on a market basis, and 83 percent funded on an actuarial basis.
Through this effort, IMRF determined a number of steps any organization should follow in developing a media relations program:
1. Before initiating a media relations program or hiring a third party to create one for you, you must understand what is being written and said about the organization. Start by determining how much media coverage is being received, how accurate that coverage is, and how the organization is being portrayed.
2. Then, assess the organization's appetite for media coverage. Questions that should be answered are: Would we be better off if we did not engage media? Are we willing to commit? Are we prepared to take the bitter stories with the sweet ones?
3. Appreciate the journalism ethos. Many reporters chose journalism because they want to enlighten their readers, or they want to effect change. These days, reporters are typically overworked, underpaid, and on deadline. Newspapers are being closed, downsized, and merged. Publishers need to sell ad space and reporters want to attract readers, so they embrace conflict and controversy. …