Friday, March 27, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

I hesitate to jump on this bandwagon like everyone else ~ surely we're all beyond tired of hearing about it ~ but unfortunately the recent AIG executive bonus mess presents a perfect case study in bad PR. This is all the more baffling when one realizes that the very god of crisis communications, Burson Marsteller, is said to be guiding AIG through its perilous situation. Certainly it's not heretical to suggest that this one is a disaster that will have PR professionals shaking their heads for decades to come.

Can this possibly be the same Burson Marsteller who counseled the absolutely spot-on crisis PR response to the Mother of All PR Crises, the Tylenol poisoning tragedy of 1982? How can the response be so different? In the Tylenol case, the client stepped forward immediately, publicly and with tremendous humility and compassion. It called for an immediate recall and virtually oozed responsiveness, engendering trust. Had it acted differently, Johnson & Johnson ~ not just the Tylenol brand ~ might very well have been sunk by the sheer horror of the case. Because of its unquestionably responsible approach, Tylenol remains one of the most trusted brands in over-the-counter pain relief.

AIG's response to the bonus crisis could not be more different. Instead of acceptance of responsibility and public humility, we see defensiveness grounded in legalese and an apparent cluelessness to the pointedly visceral reaction of Jane Q Public to the news. From the beginning, one has been tempted to ask, What color is the sky in your world? Surely only aliens from another galaxy could be so thoroughly and blithely unaware of the disbelief and rage of the average citizen.

Is AIG a more difficult client than Johnson & Johnson? Has Burson Marsteller changed? Is the agency giving sound advice that is not being followed by client execs? Or does Burson not "get it" either? Does anyone believe that, simply because no one died in the AIG crisis the corporate response can be more self-aggrandizing? How to explain this seemingly inexplicable sea change?

Several days ago, Advertising Age published an excellent assessment of the situation, "No Easy Fix for AIG's Bonus Blowback" by Michael Bush. In it, he says, "Even PR pros are shaking their heads at the blundering giant insurer, which is fast becoming not only the poster boy for financial-industry greed, but also a company seen as too arrogant or stupid to keep out of its own way." Dramatic words, but hard to argue with. Both the industry pros he quotes in the piece and the many reader comments make it an informative read.

The immense size of the dollar amounts in this discussion defy comprehension. Even in the PR/marketing world, where big salaries and bonuses are well understood, surely we can see how utterly indefensible AIG's position in this matter looks from the outside ... Or can we?

Thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

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