In a week where AIG is accepting its fourth government bailout, they’ve decided to finally address the real problem … to spend some of their precious and now 80% public resources fixing what is really wrong with their company. They are working on their image. Well image is just one of their issues.
In a story that was first reported by PRWeek about AIG hiring Kekst & Co. for PR help PRWeek went on to object to the company’s entire “list of PR representation,” and, particularly to the hiring of Burson-Marsteller.
Burson has worked for clients such as Blackwater, Union Carbide, Philip Morris and Nicolae Ceausescu. PRWeek noted that, “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.”
AIG is an ongoing concern, and as such, perception is a huge part of the reality of its business. Whether any of us agreed with the decision to prop up AIG, the fact is that $160 billion of taxpayer dollars have already been soaked up in the clean-up operation. The only hope that we see any of that money again is if the company survives and can be made sufficiently attractive to be broken up and sold. Maintaining even existing customers is going to require explanation and reassurance, functions that PR (and advertising) can help fulfill.
Over the years Burson has certainly worked for companies that many would think of as toxic. But it’s worth noting that PR done right is about honesty and transparency. Any PR professional worth his or her fee would’ve told AIG that it must explain to the press and public exactly what went wrong, offer full apologies and start to outline what steps the company is taking to rebuild business and create some value for the American people.
Oh, yes, and the PR pro would have advised that there is no way on earth you can dress up $165 million in bonuses as anything other than an offense to every citizen.
Yes, PR is still, too often, about intentional deceit. When it is, it should be called out as such. But in ethical hands, it’s about communicating facts and points of view that deserve a hearing. Right now, with a serious information vacuum being filled by anger, fear and speculation, communication is arguably more, rather than less, important.
What AIG should be saying is, “Right now we are getting an unprecedented number of questions from the press and public about our business, and we need people who can get those answers for you. You own us now, and we need to put the emphasis on the ‘public’ in public relations.”