"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."
That was MSNBC's Rachel Maddow riffing -- sarcastically, just in case it wasn't clear -- on a story that was first reported by PRWeek, about AIG hiring Kekst & Co. for PR help. She went on to object to the company's entire "list of PR representation," and, particularly to the hiring of Burson-Marsteller. She pointed out that Burson has worked for clients such as Blackwater, Union Carbide, Philip Morris and Nicolae Ceausescu, and noted: "When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial."
If you haven't seen it, dig it up. This is well-written stuff, delivered in the anchor's refreshingly caustic yet accessible manner. We should all hope that Maddow stays the course with this sort of skeptical, plain-English journalism, and remains untainted by the approach of fellow cable-news celebs.
But in this case Maddow is not telling the full story. 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. I'm not defending Burson. I've met PR executives from that agency, and many others, who might even take some pride in the list of clients that Maddow reeled off, and who invoke the lawyer's argument that everyone has a right to a defense.
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 she'd also have advised that there's 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 never ceases to stun me, however, is that companies and the agencies they hire are not prepared for criticism. The AIG statement to Maddow, at least the part she mentioned, was some crap about Kekst already being on the M&A roster. Who cares? What AIG should have said was: "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."
Maddow might still have savaged AIG, but the company might have turned the hiring of an agency into an opportunity to start showing a more palatable side.
If you work in marketing, you know marketing can help build better, more profitable businesses that are more responsive to consumers. But you also ought to be aware by now that not everyone sees it that way, and that it's important to explain why you do what you do.