When we write research publications for Government clients, the golden rule we operate by is “Assume that any sentence you write can be taken out of context by the Daily Mail and used as a headline”. That way, you can avoid any, er, ‘unintended political consequences’.
So after DWP published our recent research looking at how long it takes to transfer a pension pot, I was surprised to see this headline and a ‘Dawn of the Dead’ style killer-zombie graphic splashed over the Mail’s money pages:
ATTACK OF THE PENSION ZOMBIES: HOW DEAD INSURANCE FUNDS ARE HOLDING YOUR LIFE SAVINGS HOSTAGE
Now I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the title of DWP report, so I read on…
“Thousands of pensioners are being deprived of as much as £11,000 each by ‘zombie’ insurance companies which hold their savings hostage for up to four months.”
(Ah yes, hostage taking. That famous zombie tactic…)
“Some of these closed funds are dallying for a whole month before replying to savers who, desperate for a better deal, ask to transfer their pension to a new provider. It can then take another three months before the cash is released. Yet we can reveal the paperwork to transfer a pension fund can take as little as two hours to complete.”
‘We can reveal’? I think you’ll find RS revealed it in April. This is your classic tactic of splicing together BIG, SENSATIONAL and UNRELATED numbers with some nice emotive language to fit the chosen narrative. I could point out that the ‘two hours’ in the quote above related to a different set of circumstances and assumptions, but, yep, you’re bored already aren’t you? Let’s read on.
“A Government-commissioned report accuses closed pension firms of deliberately dragging their feet in a last-ditch bid to fill their coffers with fees taken from their customers’ savings. The flopped firms can rake in as much as £100,000 for every 100 customers who want to move their savings elsewhere, Money Mail research estimates.”
Now. This Money Mail research. That’s £1,000 per customer isn’t it? £1,000 in charges by holding onto someone’s pension for an extra 4 months? The average pension pot is £25,000. So… how?
I guess we’re not supposed to start questioning the numbers, that’s not the point. I have to admit that this report does a far better job of conjuring up the idea of evil zombie pension providers in burgundy ties rolling around in wads of desperate pensioners’ money than our own report did (thank goodness).
Incidentally my personal favourite line is: “One pension firm, which wished to remain anonymous, in the DWP report told investigators…” Investigators! Andrew Wood, Research Investigator. I like that.
The whole article is based on just five sentences that appear on page 18 of our 36-page report: a report otherwise focussed on the fact that 60-80% of pension transfers are now trouble-free, and the average transfer time has reduced from seven weeks to one. But hey, that’s boring.
A similar thing happened when we published the results of our first RDR Professionalism Survey for the FSA. The key findings of the survey were that progress towards meeting the RDR deadlines by advisers was on track. But certain elements of the press focussed solely on declining morale among IFAs and described an industry where every adviser was supposedly headed for the door.
This is all fine of course. I’m not going to pretend I don’t like press coverage, and you’ve got to make a story that’s interesting out of what can be some pretty dense research reports.
But it does teach those of us in research (rather than PR or journalism) that when we’re writing that next report about the looming pensions crisis… we need to make sure what we’re saying is water-tight, so that if someone decides to pick out some random numbers, put them next to some stats about death rates and turn it into a Zombie thriller, at least we can stand behind our own data.
Remember – you can prove anything with facts. The finance press certainly will.
With thanks to Mel Duffield at the National Association of Pension Funds for spotting the article!