Ethical PR and A.I.G.

Mild in NE Ohio even at 5 a.m. this morning. So hitting the concrete was kind of, ah, fun. I guess you’re still allowed to have some fun these days even as the economy is flat-lining. And it gave me some time to think about what is happening on Wall Street and with the Wizards who contributed so ruthlessly and gleefully to the economic meltdown.

Here’s reality about our “corporate icons,” as reported in The Washington Post this morning:

  • A share of Citigroup costs less than half an ATM fee.
  • GM is selling below the price of a gallon of gasoline.
  • You will pay more today for a fluorescent flood light bulb than a share of GE.
  • Probably don’t even want to consider Starbucks. Unless you’re looking at the new value meal. Yuck. I digress.

Wow. Talk about March Madness.

The Prez said the other day that this, in effect, was a good time to buy. But no one has any confidence; no one wants to reach out and grab hold of a falling sword. Obama is quoted in The New York Times:

“Profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal,” Mr. Obama said, “if you’ve got a long-term perspective on it.”

Ah, the glorious “long term.” Well, apparently we’re having trouble focusing on the “long term” when the “immediate term” is filled with terrible economic news (GM folding, massive job cuts and so on) and the continuation of some really unethical, if not illegal, behavior (Merrill Lynch bonuses, lavish trips at what is now taxpayer expense and so on).

And in past recessions, savvy PR and investor relations pros could shift the focus to the “long term.” But it ain’t happening this time around — maybe because the Wizards on Wall Street and the Princes on Capitol Hill have forfeited the trust of the American people. And it may take years — the long term — to regain that trust, if ever. When it comes to effective public relations, actions and ethical conduct will always speak louder than words (tweets?).

I wonder if any of the Wizards at any step along the way to Dow 6000 consulted their own PR staffs or their retained outside advisers? My guess is no, not really. Despite millions in salaries and fees. And if the internal PR guys and gals “had a seat at the table” during the early days of this debacle and were mute, then shame on them. Still, in the absence of any good results or news, there appear to be plenty of PR firms these days hankering to get a piece of the action — and taxpayer money.

For instance, The New York Times reported yesterday that insurance-company-turned-ward-of-taxpayers A.I.G. has its own internal PR staff — plus it retains four outside firms: Kekst & Company, Sard Verbinnen, Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller.

Wow. Talk about throwing money down a rat hole. Here’s from the Times article:

It is hard to know how much each firm is paid for its artfully crafted message, Breakingviews says. And A.I.G. may legitimately need help talking to the crowds of journalists, regulators, legislators and investors now that it is in crisis mode.

Whatever their price, though, the spinmeisters haven’t necessarily managed to keep A.I.G.’s leaders out of trouble. During the firm’s conference call on Monday, A.I.G.’s chief restructuring officer, Paula Reynolds, unwisely quipped that it might be “better to go to jail” than have to deal with the intricacies of securities laws as they apply to A.I.G.’s situation.

In any event, words won’t help soothe the losses taxpayers will probably take on the $150 billion-plus bailout they are financing. In fact, they might be irked about the way the A.I.G. spin machine is working.

Might be “irked.” Nah. We’re beyond that. Causing a shitstorm at some point? Maybe.

When I was teaching communications ethics at Kent State I would ask students what company/industry would they never want to work for. The idea was to talk about whether every individual/organization warranted PR counsel. And what you would do as a PR pro if you had some ethical qualms or other concerns about a client.

A year ago tobacco companies not only topped the list. They owned it. Hard to find a single student in a class of 20 or so who wanted to work for or represent tobacco products.

Wonder what would happen if I could ask the same question today?

I don’t know. I imagine tobacco is still king. But even at a time when jobs are scarce, I’m not sure it’s a dream come true these days to defend the Wizards and think about positive things to say about the “long term.”


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