MSNBC vs. AIG’s Public Relations Agencies

If you didn’t catch it, last week MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow tore a strip off AIG for having a “list” of PR firms on its roster. As Maddow put it, “We’re paying the bill for PR firms to spin us?”

Here’s the clip:

As juicy as this clip is, I do feel the need to point out a few things about the AIG rant:

  1. Even if AIG is now largely government-sponsored, it is still in business. For the company to remain that way, it needs to attract customers. Public relations, along with a long list of other business functions, needs to feed into that.
  2. Public relations firms do more (much more) than just “spin” people. I expect the company’s new owners (Americans) might like to know about changes being made to bring the company out of its predicament. Guess what? That’s PR’s job.
  3. It’s unlikely (although possible) that AIG’s “list” of firms is doubling-up. Maddow’s melodramatic reaction makes it seem as though AIG is paying several firms to do the same work. It’s much more likely that they each have their designated areas on which to focus.

It’s not surprising that people react this way to AIG’s activities. Reputation is built on trust. When, on repeated occasions, you accept public money (over $150bn to date) then send employees on expensive getaways, your trust is shot. At this point, no-one trusts anything that AIG does.

What do you think about this, and how would you respond if you were AIG?

(Maddow also mentions PR agency Burson-Marsteller, reeling-off a laundry list of some of the agency’s clients and saying “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson Marsteller on speed dial.” Disclosure: Burson-Marsteller is the parent company of National Public Relations, a competitor to my employer Thornley Fallis. We’re also starting to work with an insurance company that I can’t name yet – however, its products don’t compete with AIG in Canada)

  • Wow, this was the first time I had seen this clip. Sensational, much? I’m sure AIG has a “list” of law firms, accounting firms, HR consultants, etc. (like any other large corporation). It’s just so easy to pick on PR, isn’t it?

    The first thing I did after viewing the clip was to go to BM’s Web site. I wanted to see what its response was. Despite at least 5 “official” BM blogs listed and an online newsroom, there was nothing. I’m not sure if they haven’t had the chance to respond yet or have just decided that it’s not worth getting into a shouting match over, but it seems like at least a statement should be in order. If a clip like that came out against one of BM’s clients, I’m sure they would take action to defend their client’s reputation. Why not do the same for themselves?

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  • Dave:

    I think the bigger problem is Burson-Marsteller….presented in Maddow’s way, tying the agency into always working with evil…that was some nasty stuff.

    Best always,
    – Peter

  • Amy, Peter,

    I completely agree with you – it’s a big potential issue for Burson-Marsteller. However, as they’re a competitor, I have to tread a line when looking at their situation. Analyze away, but I’ll choose to stay out of that one.

  • Rachel Maddow appears to be trying to do Jon Stewart without a live audience. Pretty entertaining clip, but I don’t think anyone is going to publicly get up in arms over this clip.

  • I actually saw that clip last week and immediately looked up Burson-Marsteller’s information. Similar to what Amy found, there was no response.

    Being an PR outsider, I have to say that news story did provoke a lot of public anger and resentment towards AIG & those PR firms that helped companies like AIG. Although it might have been too harsh and melodramatic, it does represent a public consensus/stereotype.

    Many people view advertising/PR companies as unnecessary business functions to disguise client companies’ problems and misdemeanors. As companies slowly drifting away from their customers, marketing research, PR & advertising came onto the playground to bridge the gap. However, agencies seldom choose who they are representing, they usually just speak for whoever pays them. In this AIG case, it does put PR firms’ integrity in doubt (similar to lawyer’s client selection). Additionally, PR’s primary role has been twisted in the public eyes since PR firms often help clients to speak well instead of being good to the public. I agree with Mihaela’s POV on http://www.auburnmedia.com/wordpress/2009/03/05/rachel-madow-slices-dices-burson-marstellar/

    Any thoughts?

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  • I would like to comment on Maddow’s perception of Burson-Marsteller (BM). I did my undergraduate degree in communications and had a similar discussion/argument with one of my professors who preached alternative media sources and disagreed with multi-national PR firms for the most part. Maddow describes BM as the “PR firm from hell” because of the clients they have serviced with negative connotations. At the end of the day, BM is one of the best firms in the world, and their bottom line is to A) make money B) service clients C) to do this to the best of their ability. It bothers me when people point fingers at PR firms for taking on certain clients or services judging their principles and morals. You rarely see defense lawyers being attacked in this fashion, they excel in the concentration of defense, and they provide their clients with the best service they can because they are professionals. The lawyers don’t think the accused they are defending are necessarily good people or innocent, but they were hired to do a specific job regardless of the circumstances. The same goes for Burson-Marsteller, they are professionals offering top of the line services to clients who are willing to foot the bill. At the end of the day it’s a business.