Last evening, I caught part 2 of Rachel Maddow’s rant on AIG and PR giant Burson-Marsteller. Have a look for yourself. The gist: AIG is using taxpayer dollars on PR firms. The news is a PR Week notice that respected investor relations firm Kekst & Company their list of PR representatives, but this is just a jumping off point for a rant on Burson–the agency that ‘evil has on speed-dial.’ (we’ll ignore for now that the otherwise intelligent Maddow expresses confusion on the meaning of the term “M&A”).
The charge: AIG is using taxpayer dollars to “shine up their image”…to “spin” us, the very taxpayers who own 80% of AIG. Most people I talk to agree — this is incontrovertibly a waste of not only taxpayer money, but corporate money. Why would any company need a PR firm to “communicate”? My answer: why wouldn’t they?
My argument is with the premise. I don’t know what the good folks from Kekst or Burson or any other firm are telling the folks at AIG. What I do know is that good PR counselors don’t shine up images, particularly in a crisis. We like to say that the best you can do with a bad story is to try and keep it from getting worse. PR in this situation is a management function. You hire an agency because you know they have smart people who’ve been there with other comapnies in crisis, who can give you an outside perspective on how to tell your story straight. To avoid groupthink — the insular thinking that leads to big management mistakes.
Think about any relationship you have. How easy is it to tell your wife you received another speeding ticket? Or that you’ve lost your job? How much easier is it to hide the truth; how much harder is it to own up to it? Management struggles with the same very human emotions. If I’m management, I’m thinking I need someone with the experience to tell me to stop talking around the uncomfortable truth and say and do the right thing. Or when I’m saying something stupid or insensitive. They need someone to help them put what they need to say into words that will make sense to people. To tell their story. Trust me — clear, honest, open communication is a lot harder than it looks.
Not saying the agency folks are going to make a difference. Or that AIG is a good company with management that wants to do right — I have no idea one way or the other. I’m not even saying that AIG shouldn’t be able to handle this themselves — in a perfect world, they would. But in a perfect world, they wouldn’t be in this mess.
But I can understand why they feel like they need help, and why PR agencies are the right call for them. They’re not trying to shed light on some “secret awesomeness” of AIG — they’re just in a deep hole, and need someone to hand them a flashlight.