What Happens When The Conversation Hits Too Close To Home

The concept of “joining the conversation” can seem a bit artificial. Few online “conversations” are in progress for any length of time and they’re not that easy to pick up on. Besides, most of the time we hit the Web with our own ideas (conversation-starters, if you will) that we hope someone else will get behind and help distribute.

But on April 23, PBS’ Frontline aired a documentary that has prompted an ongoing online conversation about retirement funding and the expense of retirement plans. As tipped off by the title, The Retirement Gamble, the content was provocative. Its position: That fund fees are eroding retirement savings while fund companies and financial advisors in the 401(k) and retirement planning business profit. In the event that you missed it, here’s the link.

The documentary stimulated lots of debate. Most if not all of the online publications that cover finance or retirement issues took note of it, as did all of the leading advisor publications and a few advisor blogs. I’ve added some links at the bottom of this post for you to read a sampling of reactions.  

For another measure of the response to this one-hour television program, see the amount of commenting and social sharing happening on the sites that reported on the documentary. The 12,000 Facebook Recommends, 1,800 tweets and 448 Google+ shares on the PBS site are just the start.

Search interest in the term “retirement gamble” and the related “frontline retirement gamble” search merited a break-out appearance on Google Trends.

Some commentators thought the coverage was fair, others thought it was biased. I’m not going to weigh in on any of that. My interest was in how fund companies would react. Years ago, there would have been no response. But the industry has developed a contemporaneous communications competency, aided by the availability of digital channels and tools. I thought that firms would chime in, on their own sites and maybe in comments on others’.

The Industry's Response

Mindful that the “crafting,” routing and review of a communication on this topic could take a few weeks at some firms, I waited to do a sweep of who said what. But even though I track mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) content fairly closely, I hadn’t seen word one. So, I did what anybody else might do (indeed, lots of searchers have already done, as the Google Trends graph shows) and went to Google.

I reviewed all the Google search results for “retirement gamble” and “retirement PBS” looking for an asset manager-authored commentary. The closest I came was an endorsement on JohnCBogle.com, whose footer has a standing disclaimer: “The opinions presented do not necessarily represent those of Vanguard's current management.” 

So, then I searched the asset manager blogs. (This is the kind of topic that blogs are made for!) While I found a few posts about proprietary retirement research (representing conversations that firms wanted to start themselves), my on-site “retirement gamble” and “PBS” searches showed up nothing.

As a final check, I turned to Ignites.com, the subscription-only news site for the mutual fund industry and yes, there were a few articles about the industry’s response to the show.

The first bore the headline, “Industry Blasts PBS Documentary on Retirement,” while “Documentary Damaged Industry's Rep: Poll” headlined the second. According to a poll taken of Ignites readership, “although 38% do not perceive The Retirement Gamble as having inflicted reputational damage, most expressing that view do not perceive the industry as being unscathed either.”

It was from the second article that I learned that at least two firms—Vanguard and Buckingham Asset Management—had commented on The Retirement Gamble on their sites. Vanguard was critical while Buckingham called it a must-watch.

The Ignites article left room for the possibility that other firms are also addressing the documentary in their own way. That made sense. It would be almost impossible to believe that public television could have aired an investigative report on a $10 trillion industry and the industry would have barely made a peep. Surely, talking points were created, media availabilities were distributed to the press, customer service people were prepped with scripts.

A Sustainable Strategy?

But, what about online and in public where much of the debate is happening?

Ignites quoted marketing consultant April Rudin as suggesting (but not necessarily agreeing with) that some firms would be choosing not to refer to the documentary by name to keep from giving it any more attention.

Seriously? The industry’s response is symptomatic of thinking that predates a time before today. A time when there was a lopsided relationship between brands and consumers. When brands, which had the resources to control messaging and communication platforms, effectively dictated who gets attention and who doesn’t.            

While asset managers can refuse to dignify the documentary with a public response, they can’t impose silence on others. As shown in their comments and social shares, empowered clients (investors and advisors) are taking to the Web to react, to compare notes with others and to wonder about whether their 401(k) plan providers’ interests are aligned with theirs.

Ignoring a controversy central to the fund industry’s business won’t make it go away. And, it will endear the industry no further to its clients.

Preparing a response without acknowledging PBS or The Retirement Gamble by name advances nothing. It simply raises the likelihood that a firm's statement will be overlooked in the online debate, some of which is driven by keyword-specific searches.  

Vanguard is one of this industry’s communications leaders but it wasn’t one of the firm’s finest moments when they published an April 29 blog post that studiously avoids the documentary’s name. I count more than 30 comments, including comments made to other commenters, on the post. The first comment was to the point: “Thanks for the article. What is the name of the documentary?” It was another commenter on the post who provided the title and a link.

This is the world we live in. Others can be expected to initiate and conduct conversations that are not flattering to us or that we would prefer to avoid. The conversation on retirement funding and affordability, specifically, is one that can benefit from more discourse by more informed entities. There is a lot of confusion out there, revealed not created by The Retirement Gamble.  

From the luxury of my perch outside your four walls, this looks like a communications opportunity for asset managers that are willing to step up, to address issues head-on, to listen and to show themselves to be accountable in public even when on the defense.     

Or, maybe you disagree. If you do or if I have somehow missed something, I hope you’ll say so below.

Also see (included in part for their mix of reader comments):

  • 401(k) Documentary Ruffles Feathers
  • Advisors Stung By Frontline Attack
  • The Dull Task of Decoding 401(k) Fees Matters
  • The Retirement Gamble
  • Winning The Retirement Gamble: Step 1 Adjust Your Mindset