Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Five PR Steps AIG Should Take

There's been some discussions online and on Twitter about whether some companies are beyond the help of PR.

Mostly, the discussion centers on AIG.

If they don't change how they operate, then I agree: AIG is beyond the help of PR.

But I don't think that has to be the case.

Pre-crisis, AIG needed to focus on investor relations, not consumer PR because it does not sell to consumers. That has changed. As taxpayers, we now own 80% of AIG, having contributed more than $170 billion. AIG still needs IR, but it needs to reach out to the rest of us, too.

Here are five PR steps AIG needs to consider:
  1. Apologize for mistakes made. Make it sincere, make sure people have a chance to hear it. It better be sincere because the public can tell when it's not. Act as if your jobs depend on it -- because the taxpayers and the country need you to get this right.
  2. Explain the steps they're taking to get on solid footing. The taxpayers have committed at least $170 billion. Depending on whether you prefer the government cliche -- sooner or later that will add up to real money -- or the advertising spend cliche -- I know I waste 50% of my media buy, I just can't figure out which 50% -- AIG needs to clearly explain how it is using taxpayer money to get on solid footing. JetBlue pubslihed it passenger bill of rights, explaining the steps it would take; AIG needs to publish something similar, something easy to understand. This is complicated stuff, just check out part of the current explanation: "The facility carried a rate of LIBOR (the London Interbank Offered Rate – a widely used benchmark used to set short-term interest rates) plus 8.5%, a commitment fee of 2% on the loan principal and a fee on the undrawn portion of 8.5%." Meanwhile, the document that includes "AIG’s Plans Going Forward" could include some specific bulleted points to make it easy to understand what the company is doing.
  3. Recognize that the culture of million-dollar bonuses and life pre-crisis has changed. They need to start by rescinding the bonuses. But they need to go further, and make significant changes to how the company and its employees interact with the public. Goldman Sachs employees now visiting New York City have to stay at Embassy Suites, not the Ritz, both to save money and because it owns Embassy Suites. Employees are grumbling about the change, but it's the right thing to do. In fact, AIG needs to take a hard look at the way it operates, from catered lunches to offsite golf boondogles and ask themselves, "Would I like news of this to be on the front pages of the New York Times?" Or, worse, "Would I like to see this as a segment on the Daily Show?"
  4. Make sure PR counsel has a seat at the table, and listen to them. If they say a move or decision or event would look bad if made public -- listen to them. Realize you're operating under crisis conditions, and your PR should reflect that. Yes, that can be an expensive way to conduct a PR program, but it may help avoid significant problems. After all, taxpayers who feel wronged are more outspoken than shareholders. Taxpayers will complain, loudly and often, to politicians. And that won't help down the road, when AIG needs more money.
  5. Continue to provide status updates on the progress AIG is making, be accessible, and engage by offering ways for the public to provide feedback. The image right now is a company run amock. AIG's senior management needs to continue to demonstrate that it is getting its house in order. That means being transparent. That means being accountable. That means making significant changes to "that's the way we always did things." By the way, AIG does have a web page devoted to informing the public; it's called AIG Moving Forward, and it's available from a button off the home page. The last time the page seemed to have been updated was March 2 -- that's more than two weeks ago -- with one link from March 14. It needs to be updated on a daily basis. It needs to have its CEO Ed Liddy regularly provide a video update on its site. And AIG Moving Forward needs to make it easier for people to comment and provide feedback. Overall, the site didn't look very friendly or engaging.
There are more specific steps AIG should consider -- namely measure stakeholders' attitudes, establish benchmarks, develop a stakeholder communications strategy. But that would require AIG to want to engage the American people. So far, the company has not sought to engage us. It has taken our money but shown little desire to be accountable or to act as if it finally recognizes that the new normal means the old way of doing business no longer works.

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