TALLAHASSEE, July 26—For as long as anyone can remember, state employees in Florida—like state employees almost everywhere—have received defined benefits, determined by a combination of their years of service and the salaries they received. But that’s all about to change, as employees are offered the chance to invest their pension money, and that’s creating a major communications challenge.
It’s a challenge that seemed tailor-made for the new Ketchum Inside unit at the nation’s sixth largest public relations firm, which won out over Burson-Marsteller and Fleishman-Hillard to handle the assignment, worth “several million dollars” over the next two years on behalf of the Florida State Board of Administration.
Florida is not the first state to make the transition from a defined benefits plan to a defined contribution plan, but it is the largest, with more than 600,000 employees. To smooth the transition and to educate employees about their choices, the state has appointed a team of outside consultants that includes Ketchum, Ernst & Young, Financial Engines, and Citistreet.
Says Peter Fleischer, Ketchum partner and director of the employee communications unit, “This is the kind of assignment we had in mind when we created Ketchum Inside.” At the core of the program is the kind of benefits communication for which Sheppard Associates—acquired by Ketchum two years ago—is best known, but the campaign will also include employee meetings and an Internet component, provided by Ketchum Inside’s Concentric Communications unit, as well as some mainstream public relations targeting opinion leaders.
“Any time you have change on this scale, there are issues,” says Fleischer. “Although people will be able to keep their old benefits package if they like, there is a lot of confusion and there’s a fear factor that goes along with change. Our job will be to provide comprehensive education about what this means and to give people the tools they need to make the wise choice.”
He describes the state as “a very enlightened client” that understands the importance of communication in making the new plan work.
“We were particularly impressed by the creativity and collaborative style of the Ketchum team, their depth of experience in HR communications—especially in the area of benefit communication, and by their appreciation for the need to safeguard taxpayer dollars,” says James Francis, chief economist for the FSBA.  “This was a very rigorous selection process and throughout it the quality and expertise of the Ketchum team were readily apparent to all of us.”
Fleischer says he hopes the Florida effort will serve a blueprint for other states considering similar changes.
Separately, Ketchum’s Pittsburgh office has been selected by two local clients, the Pittsburgh Technology Council and BillingZone, and the firm’s San Francisco office has been named agency of record by the San
Francisco Ballet.