Shining Up PR’s Apple

10 Mar

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.

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5 Responses to “Shining Up PR’s Apple”

  1. Curtis March 12, 2009 at 2:02 am #

    Good stuff, Ken. I think the more interesting story is that of Rachel Maddow’s rant on Burson-Marsteller. Was the BM (ha, potty humor) memo a good idea? Maybe a vidcast would have worked better? I don’t know, but it’s making good gosip. 🙂

  2. Ken Kadet March 12, 2009 at 9:36 am #

    Well, to each his own … How’s this: A commentator with a national cable TV soapbox calls out the PR profession’s entire reason for existence, and the agency world snickers and says it’s Burson’s problem. Then it sticks its head back in the sand. The most the PRSA Chair can say to Maddow in his blog today is a typical recitation of the highest ideals and great public good done by PR firms and finishes by saying to Maddow, “Call me.” Um … if you mean it, how about you call her? http://prsay.prsa.org/index.php/2009/03/11/a-madd-look-at-public-relations/#more-183

    Re: Penn’s memo … The tactic was fine; the message was off. It seemed more concerned with burnishing Burson employees’ bruised egos than protecting clients and the industry — though he does both. While it was an employee memo, corporate communications best practice is to assume that a memo like this is public the moment you hit send.

  3. Brian March 22, 2009 at 8:00 am #

    Maddow was obviously linking AIG to other ‘evil’ BM clients, and did a good job — lots of data to make her simple point, which became irrefutable with the pile of data and simple approach. (She couldn’t admit to knowing the definition of M&A because she needed to spin her own image to be an everywoman/man, PO’ed at all this government waste just like the rest of us.)

    And then the PR industry responds with “Public relations also helps individuals reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to an open exchange of information that fosters mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It aids businesses, governments, and other organizations in understanding the attitudes and values of different audiences in order to further the achievement of their institutional goals.”

    Further the achievement? Fosters mutual understanding? Reach decisions? From outside the PR business (where I am after 20 years inside) this is meaningless.

    How about, “AIG has hired a PR agency to tell people what the company is doing to fix itself. They’re busy doing the fixing, and they hired the best communicators to help get the word out.”?

    This is the image problem that PR has and has, for all its talent, not been able to fix. It’s not spin doctoring, it’s not image clean-up, it’s not representing evil. It’s…well, what is it, in everyman/woman terms?

    • Ken Kadet March 25, 2009 at 8:47 pm #

      Yeah — that’s the $50K a month question for agencies, right? How about this (for AIG at least)? “Communications is tough and its complicated and frankly, we’re not doing a good job at it. Every time we open our mouths, it gets worse. We’re paying the best in the business to get in here and help us to stop doing that so we can focus on trying to fix this mess.”

  4. Brian March 25, 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    Oh, I REALLY like that. Too bad they’d never consider anything so simple, and honest.

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